On a dusty hillside in the Middle East, a team of archaeologists picks their way through a hidden cave. Tucked inside a dark tunnel, they uncover a collection of pottery jars. They might not look like much, but this discovery could transform history as we know it.
In February of 2017, researchers from Liberty University in Virginia and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem made a startling announcement. In partnership with the Israel Antiquities Authority, they had been investigating some caves at Qumran in the West Bank.
Located around a mile from the Dead Sea in the Judean Desert, Qumran is near the site of an ancient Jewish settlement. Over the years, many interesting historical discoveries have come to light here.
However, recent years have seen something of an archaeological drought. Indeed, until recently, no new finds of note had turned up in the region for more than 60 years. But this latest discovery should more than make up for lost time.
Inside the mouth of the cave, the team discovered discarded arrowheads and tools made from flint. It was evidence that Neolithic people had once used the cave – but the best was yet to come.
Using a small pickaxe, the archaeologists then got to work excavating the cave. Amazingly, they soon discovered an unbroken jar. When they opened it, they were excited to discover a scroll tucked safely inside.
Thinking they may have uncovered a relic of great importance, the team then sent the scroll to a laboratory at Hebrew University. Sadly, however, the paper turned out to be blank.
Undeterred, the archaeologists continued to explore the cave. Initially, they believed that a cave-in had blocked a section. But after a closer inspection, they began to suspect that the obstruction was deliberate.
Sure enough, when they finally got through the wall of rock, the team could see a secret tunnel leading off some 20 feet from the main cave. And in the tunnel, they then made the discovery that has been stunning archaeologists around the world.
Hidden in the tunnel were three broken storage jars, their lids still intact. Although the jars were empty, the team found evidence to suggest that they had once contained a cache of ancient documents known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, thought to be among the most valuable documents on Earth.
The Dead Sea Scrolls first came to light back in the 1940s when a Bedouin shepherd accidentally fell into a cave at Qumran. When he finally emerged, he was clutching a fistful of mysterious scrolls. Astutely thinking that they could be valuable, he then took them back to his home.
Eventually, the scrolls were sold to an antiques dealer, although it wasn’t until the following year that academics became aware of their existence. In 1947, archaeologist Dr. John C. Trever from the American Schools of Oriental Studies began researching the strange documents.
Trever noticed similarities between the Qumran scrolls and the Nash Papyrus, an ancient fragment of biblical text. In fact, the Qumran scrolls, which became more commonly known by the public as the Dead Sea Scrolls, were even older. As archaeologists studied them, they began to realize the significance of the find.
The Dead Sea Scrolls, it turns out, contained the oldest known copies of the books that would go on to form the Hebrew Bible. Suddenly, archaeologists from around the world flocked to Qumran, keen to see what other treasures the area might reveal.
As documents of such incredible historical and religious significance, the scrolls were of course in high demand. Today, it’s said that even the tiniest fragment of one scroll, no bigger than a fingernail, could change hands for as much as $1 million.
Eventually, a staggering 972 documents were recovered from a total of 11 separate caves. After excavations ceased in 1956, archaeologists have generally believed that the stunning finds were limited to those 11 locations – until now.
With the discovery of this 12th cave, a lot of what experts thought they knew about the Dead Sea Scrolls has surely been turned on its head. From the leather wraps and cloth bindings found at the site, archaeologists are sure that the jars inside the cave once contained the precious scrolls.
However, the archaeologists arrived too late. During the excavation, they uncovered two pickaxes thought to date from the 1950s – evidence that looters had made it to the cave and taken the valuable documents for themselves.
Despite the disappointment of finding the jars empty, archaeologists are hopeful about future excavations at Qumran. “We are very optimistic,” Dr. Oren Gutfeld from the Hebrew University told CNN, “after 60 years we still find new caves with materials that shed new light on the scrolls.”
Now, experts are urging the Israeli government to provide funding for further excavations before looters and thieves can beat them to it. With so much incredible history at stake, the authorities must act fast to preserve whatever secrets may still be hidden in the Qumran hills.