For the first time in 60 years, archaeologists in Israel have discovered new fragments of a Dead Sea Scroll. Numbering in the dozens, the pieces of parchment were likely hidden in a desert cave between 132 and 136 A.D., during the Jewish people’s failed Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans.
As Ilan Ben Zion reports for the Associated Press (AP), the 80 or so fragments are inscribed with Greek translations of verses from the biblical books of Zechariah and Nahum. Researchers with the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) found the nearly 2,000-year-old scrolls in the Cave of Horror, a site in the Judean Desert that derives its name from the 40 skeletons discovered there during excavations in the 1960s.
The Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of Jewish manuscripts penned between the third century B.C. and the first century A.D., include the oldest known fragments of the Hebrew Bible. Modern researchers first learned of the texts’ existence in the 1940s, when local Bedouin shepherds happened upon a set of the scrolls in the Qumran Caves.
According to Haaretz’s Ruth Schuster and Ariel David, the newly discovered bits of parchment appear to be missing sections of a scroll found in the Cave of Horror in 1952. Like the fragments, that scroll bears lines from the Twelve, a book of the Hebrew Bible that contains the writings of 12 minor prophets.
Aside from the name of God, which appears in Hebrew, the new scroll fragments are written entirely in Greek. Scholars say the find sheds light on the evolution of biblical texts from their earliest forms.
“When we think about the biblical text, we think about something very static. It wasn’t static. There are slight differences and some of those differences are important,” Joe Uziel, head of the IAA’s Dead Sea Scrolls unit, tells the AP. “Every little piece of information that we can add, we can understand a little bit better.”
The discovery was part of an Israeli government project launched in 2017 to survey the caves of the Judean Desert and recover artifacts before looters could steal them. Per an IAA statement, researchers had to rappel down a sheer cliff to reach the Cave of Horror, which is surrounded by gorges and located some 260 feet below a cliff top.
“The desert team showed exceptional courage, dedication and devotion to purpose, rappelling down to caves located between heaven and earth, digging and sifting through them, enduring thick and suffocating dust, and returning with gifts of immeasurable worth for mankind,” says IAA Director Israel Hasson in the statement.
As part of the new research, archaeologists explored a number of desert caves in the area. In addition to the scroll fragments, reports Amanda Borschel-Dan for the Times of Israel, they found an array of artifacts dated to the Bar Kokhba revolt, which saw Jewish rebels using the caves as hideouts. Highlights of the discovery include a cache of coins bearing Jewish symbols like a harp and a date palm, arrowheads and spear tips, sandals, fabric, and lice combs.
The team found far older items, too. Youth volunteers participating in the exploration of one of the Muraba’at Caves, for instance, discovered a huge, 24- to 26-gallon basket made 10,500 years ago. As Ella Tercatin writes for the Jerusalem Post, experts think the woven vessel is the oldest of its kind found to date.
Researchers working in the Cave of Horrors also found the 6,000-year-old remains of a child whose body was naturally mummified in the dry cave. Based on a CT scan, they estimate that the individual, likely a girl, was between 6 and 12 years old. They were buried in fetal position in a shallow pit, with cloth tucked around their body.
“It was obvious that whoever buried the child had wrapped [them] up and pushed the edges of the cloth beneath [them], just as a parent covers [their] child in a blanket,” says IAA prehistorian Ronit Lupu in the statement. “A small bundle of cloth was clutched in the child’s hands.”
Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in caves along the coast of the Dead Sea in what’s now Israel and the West Bank, date to between the second century B.C. and second century A.D. Per the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library, the scrolls have helped scholars understand different Jewish sects that were active during that period.
As Andrew Lawler reported for Smithsonian magazine in 2010, researchers found around 15,000 scroll fragments between the late 1940s and early 1960s. Some of the scrolls include texts that are remarkably similar to later versions of biblical books, but with some subtle differences and additional material. Others set out regulations, forming the basis for legal commentaries in the Talmud.
Hasson says that the discoveries point to the importance of putting resources into continued exploration of the caves.
“We must ensure that we recover all the data that has not yet been discovered in the caves before the robbers do,” he adds in the statement. “Some things are beyond value.”