The Dead Sea Scrolls are among the most important historical texts ever discovered, dating as far back as the third century BCE. These texts were spread across 11 caves, and for decades archeologists have been searching for more. Now, for the first time in 60 years, a new cave has been excavated that "beyond any doubt" once contained more Dead Sea Scrolls. Sadly, looters got there first.

Between 1946 and 1956, hundreds of parchment and papyrus scrolls and scraps were found in the Qumran Caves in the Judaean Desert, Israel, and these ancient texts became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. As some of the oldest surviving documents on Earth, the scrolls contain writings from the Hebrew Scriptures, as well as other texts that weren't canonized or belong to smaller sects of the time.

The excavation was the result of "Operation Scroll," an initiative launched by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) that aims to systematically survey the caves in the area, which archaeologists believe are hiding many more significant artifacts.

"This exciting excavation is the closest we've come to discovering new Dead Sea Scrolls in 60 years," says Oren Gutfeld, director of the excavation. "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. 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 (nomadic people of the area) are accurate."

Although no scrolls were found, the cave was littered with other treasures. Shattered storage jars and lids were found in hollows in the cave walls, and other fragments of wrappings, leather bindings, and string from the same period all indicated that it once held these sacred texts. But the most recent items found in the cave tell a clear story of the fate of the scrolls: two iron pickaxe heads, dated to the 1950s, presumably belonged to looters, who cracked open the jars and fled with their valuable contents.

These fragments of jars, which once contained scrolls, were found smashed, indicating that looters had stolen the valuable artifacts(Credit: Casey L. Olson and Oren Gutfeld)

"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," explains Gutfeld. "The findings include the jars in which the scrolls and their covering were hidden, a leather strap for binding the scroll, a cloth that wrapped the scrolls, tendons and pieces of skin connecting fragments, and more."

Older artifacts, like pottery, flint blades, arrowheads, and a stamp seal decorated with the semi-precious stone carnelian, indicated that the cave was used by early humans as far back as the Copper Age and the Neolithic era.

Following the naming convention for the Qumran Caves, this new cave will be designated Q12. The Q usually comes after the cave's number, but in this case, it comes before the 12 to indicate that no scrolls were found inside.

Important as this discovery is, it might just be the beginning of bigger things. This excavation was the first to be conducted in the northern section of the Judaean Desert, and with Operation Scroll still underway, new Dead Sea Scrolls may turn up in the near future, providing more insights into the cultural and religious history of the area.

"The important discovery of another scroll cave attests to the fact that a lot of work remains to be done in the Judaean Desert and finds of huge importance are still waiting to be discovered," says Israel Hasson, Director-General of the IAA. "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."

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