Daring ‘rescue’ mission results in Dead Sea Scroll finds, other rare discoveries

Biblical texts found during a multi-year Israeli expedition make headlines, but archaeologists are buzzing over an intact Stone-Age basket.

Published 19 Mar 2021, 09:55 GMT
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21. Sections of the Book of the Twelve Minor Prophets scroll discovered in the Judean Desert expedition prior to their conservation. Photo: Shai Halevi, Israel Antiquities Authority
Photograph by Shai Halevi, Israel Antiquities Authority

The first Dead Sea Scroll fragments found in more than a half-century, and what is possibly the world’s oldest intact basket, were among the discoveries made during a multi-year effort to thwart looting in remote caves across the Judean Desert, the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced this week. 

In many instances, archaeologists have had to rappel hundreds of feet down sheer cliff faces and dig through piles of bird and bat guano to uncover artefacts that may be the target of similarly equipped looters in the sparsely populated, arid region along the western shore of the Dead Sea.

“For years, we chased after antiquities looters. We finally decided to preempt the thieves before [artefacts] are removed from the ground and the caves,” said Amir Ganor, head of the IAA’s theft-prevention unit, in a video released with the press announcement.

Read more about the modern hunt for ancient biblical texts. 

The ongoing project, which was launched in October 2017, has already surveyed some 600 caves in a 45-mile stretch of desert cliffs in a region that encompasses both Israel and Area C of the occupied West Bank, where Israel maintains military and civil control.

While international law generally forbids archaeological excavation in occupied territories, the Israeli government maintains it is within its right to conduct emergency salvage operations when the fate of cultural heritage is at risk.

The ultimate goal of the project is to catalog the entirety of the caves that pock the cliffs of the Judean desert and document which ones contain archaeological material. While that will benefit all archaeologists who work in the region, it also will enable the IAA theft-prevention unit to zero in on sites that may be particularly vulnerable to looting.

“We know exactly where there is a chance to find [artifacts], and where the looters can dig but will not find anything. So it helps us a lot,” says Eitan Klein, deputy director of the theft-prevention unit, noting that more than 50 percent of the caves documented so far do not contain any archaeological material.   

The ‘Cave of Horror’

The scroll fragments were found in Cave 8 in the wadi, or canyon, of Nahal Hever during excavations conducted in late 2019 and early 2020. Cave 8 is more evocatively known as the “Cave of Horror,” after the remains of 40 adults and children were found there during excavations in the early 1960s. It’s believed they were Jewish victims sheltering from Roman forces during the Bar-Kokhba Revolt of A.D. 132-135. The mouth of the cave is located more than 250 feet below the top of a sheer cliff and was probably accessed in ancient times by rope ladders.

Rappelling into the so-called Cave of Horror. 

Photograph by Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority

The 20-odd parchment fragments belong to what is known as the Scroll of the 12 or the Minor Prophets Scroll, parts of which were initially discovered in Nahal Hever by local Bedouin and sold in Jerusalem in the early 1950s. Archaeological expeditions to the Cave of Horror were launched in the early 1960s to locate more pieces of the scroll, which is dated to the late first century B.C.

Learn how Dead Sea Scroll fragments at the Museum of the Bible were determined to be forgeries.

Like other fragments of the Minor Prophets scroll from Nahal Hever, the new scroll fragments are written in Greek by two different scribes, says Oren Ableman, a researcher in the IAA’s Dead Sea Scrolls unit. The texture of the parchment is also similar or even identical to previous fragments that belong to the scroll.

The Minor Prophets Scroll includes 12 prophetic works that appear in the Jewish Bible and Christian Old Testament. Researchers have so far deciphered some 11 lines from the newly excavated scroll fragments, including verses from Nahum, who prophesises the destruction of the Assyrian capital of Nineveh in the seventh century B.C., and Zechariah, who foresees the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.

While the scroll fragments don’t belong to the oldest-known versions of the Minor Prophets, which go back centuries earlier, they are “fascinating and important,” says Christopher Rollston, professor of Northwest Semitic languages and literatures at George Washington University.

Archaeologists Hagay Hamer and Oriah Amichai sieving finds at the entrance to the Cave of Horror. 

Photograph by Eitan Klein, Israel Antiquities Authority

“Nearly every time a new fragment of a biblical text is found in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, the new fragments shed crucial new light on the ancient scribes, the ancient copyists, and the ancient textual traditions of the Bible,” he says.   

Most importantly, Rollston notes, is that while the scroll fragments feature verses of the Hebrew Bible written in Greek, references to the name of God are written in an archaic Palaeo-Hebrew script, which serves as a sort of textual reminder not to even speak the divine name aloud.

Originally, the Third Commandment of the Hebrew Bible in Exodus 20:7 states not to take the name in vain. “It prohibits saying it in some sort of casual, off-handed way,” Rollston explains.

But by the Second Temple period (597 B.C.-A.D. 70), he adds, “people decided that the best way to avoid breaking that commandment was not to say the divine name at all.”

This is not the first example of ancient scribes using archaic Hebrew in Greek versions of the Hebrew Bible to enforce the prohibition of speaking God’s name, but each new piece of physical evidence reinforces the antiquity of the prohibition. “The fact that it's treated differently in these scrolls is really important evidence for that,” Rollston says.

27. 6,000-year-old skeleton of a girl or a boy who was buried wrapped in cloth. 

Photograph by Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority

Other recent discoveries made in the Cave of Horror include a cache of coins from the time of the Bar-Kokhba Revolt, as well as sandals, lice combs, and arrowheads from the period.

Archaeologists were surprised by an even earlier find buried in a shallow pit against the cave wall: the partially mummified body of a young child, laid on its side and carefully wrapped in fabric. Carbon-dating of the remains revealed the child died some 6,000 years ago.

Empty basket, big questions

While the Dead Sea Scroll fragments were the first to be discovered in more than 50 years, archaeologists around the world are also talking about an even bigger precedent: what may be the world’s oldest intact basket, woven some 10,500 years ago.

The empty basket was discovered during excavations in Cave 4 at Wadi Muraba’at, some 10 miles north of the Cave of Horror in the occupied West Bank. Preserved by the extreme heat and aridity of the region, it was woven from plant material and even features an intact lid. The basket is very large, with a capacity of roughly 25 gallons. An initial study indicates it was woven by two people, one of whom was left-handed. Researchers hope analysis of the small amount of soil found in the bottom of the basket may reveal its contents. 

The 10,500-year-old basket as found in Muraba‘at Cave.

Photograph by Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

“It's by no means the earliest basket, and it's not the first basket [archaeologists have] found,” says Bill Finlayson, project director at the Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East & North Africa program at Oxford University. “The others have all been flattened or squashed or just fragments.” Other evidence for very ancient baskets, he notes, comes from impressions of basketry imprinted in sediment.

“This is the first time we've actually seen one in 3D, as it were,” Finlayson adds.

The basket belongs to a period archaeologists call Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB), an important time between 10,950 and 8,900 years ago when people in areas of the Near East began to transition from hunting and gathering, and some of the earliest farming villages began to appear.

“They didn’t even have pottery. They were just experimenting with agriculture, actually,” says Edward Banning, an archaeologist at the University of Toronto. “But they’re nonetheless living in big villages, in a fairly complex society.” 

 While crops would require storage facilities to stretch food beyond growing seasons, most PPNB sites have relatively small storage pits, if any, Banning notes.

“We've always assumed they must be storing stuff in baskets, but we don't find the baskets,” he says, calling the discovery “incredible.”

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Banning is particularly stumped as to why this basket was left in a cave near the Dead Sea some 10,000 years ago, likely far from the more fertile highlands to the west where PPNB villagers cultivated crops. One possibility, he ventures, is that Neolithic peoples may have been harvesting salt for trade.

“It's so beautifully preserved, and people will be studying that thing for years,” he adds.

Finlayson notes how the complex weaving of the basket is not only functional, but also would have been aesthetically pleasing to its Neolithic crafters and owners.

“It's not overly surprising, really. It's just the scarcity of organic remains from this period, which makes us almost forget how much they probably had.”

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