About two thousand years ago, members of the local community hid part of their library in a cave.
In 1947, in the desert area of Wadi Qumran on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, shepherds accidentally found a cave with ancient manuscripts containing biblical texts. Subsequent excavations showed that there were 11 caves in this place, in which local residents hid their library about two thousand years ago. They themselves lived near the caves, in a closed religious community reminiscent of later monasteries.
Exploration of the twelfth Qumran cave. (Photo: The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.) Entrance to the cave. (Photo: The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.) Science and life // Illustrations Clean parchment from the cave. (Photo: The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.) A piece of cloth in which scrolls were wrapped. (Photo: The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.) Carnelian seal. (Photo: The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.) ‹ › View full size
The texts were written on parchment and papyrus, wrapped in linen and placed in large clay vessels. The Qumran collection became a sensation: among the scrolls were the oldest (surviving) Old Testament manuscripts, apocrypha, historical works, interpretations, as well as community documents. The collection, which numbers tens of thousands of fragments, dates back to the 2nd century. BC. – II century AD The texts contain many analogies with Christianity: for example, the expectation of the Messiah and the imminent decisive battle of light and dark forces.
The resonance that the Qumran finds caused led to an unspoken “race” between archaeologists and robbers. In the vicinity of the first cave, about two hundred more similar caches were found. Many of them contained evidence of human presence, but fragments of scrolls, as already mentioned, were found only in eleven. However, it is assumed that not all the secret places have yet been found, and some of the manuscripts are still in the hands of collectors. So, in 2006, the police seized a previously unknown Qumran manuscript from an Arab smuggler. In 2014, several robbers who continued illegal searches in the caves were brought to trial.
The Israeli authorities’ response to the actions of the robbers was Operation Scroll, a large-scale project to completely survey Qumran. And it has already led to the first results: an expedition from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Liberty University (Virginia, USA) discovered a new cave in which the Qumran scrolls were once hidden.
During the excavations, archaeologists found clay vessels in which manuscripts were stored, pieces of fabric with which they were wrapped, and straps for binding scrolls. In addition, there was also a piece of rolled up parchment (unfortunately, it turned out to be clean). The vessels were broken, and the manuscripts stored in them were stolen. Pickaxes from the 50s of the 20th century were also found in the cave – that is, the looting took place precisely at this time.
In addition to finds associated with the Qumran community, objects from other eras were also found: ceramics, flint arrowheads, and a carnelian seal. They show that the cave was used earlier, during the Neolithic – Chalcolithic period.
Despite the fact that no new manuscripts were discovered, the very fact of the discovery of the cave is very encouraging: there may be other caches in Qumran, and therefore new finds of scrolls.
Based on materials from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.