Science First Look

Dead Sea cave discovery jumpstarts hunt for ancient treasures

Scroll-related artifacts in a newly discovered Dead Sea cave open a new chapter in the history of the ancient documents, as well as potential political conflict. 

Volunteers with the Israeli Antique Authority work at the Cave of the Skulls, an excavation site in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea, Israel, June 1, 2016. Scientists have announced the discovery of a 12th cave that has evidence that it once housed the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Ronen Zvulun/Reuters | Caption

And then there were 12. But this time it was a team of archeologists, rather than a Bedouin goat herder, who made the potentially history-shaping discovery.

A team of real-life Indiana Joneses has discovered a cave that they say was once home to ancient documents known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the first such find in 60 years. While no new texts were recovered, the discovery suggests that the hills of Qumran in the Judean desert may hold more secrets to reveal.

"Until now, it was accepted that Dead Sea Scrolls were found only in 11 caves at Qumran, but now there is no doubt that this is the 12th cave," team co-leader Oren Gutfeld of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem said in a statement.

Niches along the cave’s walls concealed a number of artifacts, including jars and cloth coverings for scrolls, leather straps, string, and a blank scroll. The remains are tantalizing, and Dr. Gutfeld is confident that the cave once contained the real deal.

"Although at the end of the day no scroll was found, and instead we 'only' found a piece of parchment rolled up in a jug that was being processed for writing, the findings indicate beyond any doubt that the cave contained scrolls that were stolen," he said.

Archeologists are working under the assumption that Bedouins looted the cave in the mid-20th Century, on account of two iron pickaxes found inside the cave tunnel.

The find reopens a chapter of archeological history many had thought closed. The Dead Sea Scrolls are ancient texts that were hidden on the shores of the Dead Sea in 68 BC to protect them from the advancing Roman Army. But the hiders did their job so well that the documents were lost for more than two thousand years, only to be found when a Bedouin shepherd had the luck to stumble upon them in 1947.

Written on parchment and animal skin in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek, the documents give insight into life and religion during antiquity as well as the birth of Christianity.

In addition to calendars and descriptions of community rules, they contain early drafts of books of the Hebrew Bible.

"They are really foundation stones to modern Western thought in the Judeo-Christian world in the same way that the 'Mona Lisa' was to development of art," James Snyder, director of the Israel Museum told LiveScience. "If you think of certain phrases that we all know, such as 'turning swords to plowshares,' meaning 'to not go to war anymore,' that comes from the Book of Isaiah, which we have in the Dead Sea Scrolls."

Those scrolls have been thoroughly analyzed (and even google-ized), but this discovery raises the possibility that more could be out there, waiting in the hundreds of caves left to be explored.

"The important discovery of another scroll cave attests to the fact that a lot of work remains to be done in the Judean Desert and finds of huge importance are still waiting to be discovered," Israel Hasson, director-general of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said in a press release about the cave's discovery.

It also casts doubt on some of the "metadata" regarding the original scrolls. "Finding this additional scroll cave means we can no longer be certain that the original locations (Caves 1 through 11) attributed to the Dead Sea scrolls that reached the market via the Bedouins are accurate," Gutfeld said.

But Qumran, where the scrolls were found, is part of the West Bank, an area where not even archeology can remain apolitical. Jewish and Palestinian rulers often clash over construction and excavation in Jerusalem, where each side seeks historical evidence to support their claims and undermine those of the other side.

"The stakes, in political terms, are very high," Eric Meyers, a religion professor at Duke University in Durham, N.C., previously told The Christian Science Monitor "You have a huge misuse of archaeology by both sides to prove their narrative is more true than others and to justify facts on the ground," he said, speaking of a clash over Palestinian removal of material from sacred Jewish site Temple Mount in 2013.

Meanwhile, Israeli archaeologists say they just want to protect as much heritage as possible, before it’s gone forever. "We are in a race against time as antiquities thieves steal heritage assets worldwide for financial gain. The state of Israel needs to mobilize and allocate the necessary resources in order to launch a historic operation, together with the public, to carry out a systematic excavation of all the caves of the Judean Desert," Mr. Hasson said.