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The Hunt for the Next Dead Sea Scrolls

In 1947, locals first found the Dead Sea Scrolls in caves near the city of Jerusalem. The scrolls contain ancient religious writings, some more than 2,000 years old.

Now, in the cliffs above the Dead Sea, archaeologists are digging higher and deeper into hundreds of unexplored caves. They are hoping to find more parchments – and they are racing against antiquities robbers.

The writings are on animal skin, known as parchment, and old paper, called papyrus. They describe Jewish society and religion before and after the time of Jesus.

Oren Gutfeld, an archaeologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said, “In the last few years we noticed new pieces of scrolls and parchments arrive on the black market. It drove us to return to the caves.”

In 2017, his team discovered remains of storage jugs in an unexplored cave, known as 52B, at Qumran. But any scrolls they may have held were missing.

At about 200 meters above the level of the Dead Sea, the cave is higher than where the scrolls were first found in 1947. It is not known whether the cave may have been a good hiding place.

Toward the back of the cave, volunteers sift through buckets of dirt in a narrow tunnel that could extend about 10 meters.

“People thought there was nothing left to find...there just wasn’t incentive to do this,” said Randall Price. He is a professor at Liberty University, a Christian college in the United States that helped fund the exploration. Price said 52B did not appear on previous explorations and could bring some secrets.

Lost treasures

In the narrow streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, Eitan Klein checks on dealers to make sure their goods are in an official registry and are not being traded on the black market. He is the deputy director of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

In late 2016, the authority recovered part of a piece of papyrus from the 7th century B.C. with the word “Jerusalem.” The papyrus had been taken from a cave by antiquities robbers.

Klein said, “The assumption is that there are still artifacts inside the caves waiting to be found. The question is, who will discover them?”

In 1952, archaeologists also found what became known as the Copper Scroll in Qumran. Unlike other scrolls written on parchment or papyrus, this was a list of 64 hiding places for gold and valuables, etched on copper.

Hebrew University’s Gutfeld said the treasure referred to what may be from the ancient Jewish temple in Jerusalem. In 2006, his team found two man-made tunnels near Qumran that he believes matched a description of the Valley of Shadow in the Copper Scroll.

One of the tunnels, about two meters high, extended 125 meters underground. No treasure was found, but Gutfeld promised to continue searching in new spots.

He said, “I’m not a treasure hunter. I’m an archaeologist. We hope to find any hint or relationship to what we know from the text of the Copper Scroll.”

New discoveries could also help solve the debate over who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.

I'm Jonathan Evans.


Words in This Story

cliff - n. a high, steep surface of rock, earth, or ice

sift - v. to separate or remove (something) by using a sifter or sieve

incentive - n. something that encourages a person to do something or to work harder

etch - v. to produce a pattern or design by using a powerful liquid to cut the surface of metal or glass

antiquities - n. objects from ancient times

registry - n. a place where official records are kept

assumption - n. something that is believed to be true or probably true but that is not known to be true

temple - n. a building for worship

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