A set of extraordinary discoveries have been announced from caves to the west of the Dead Sea, including the first confirmed fragments of ancient texts found since the 1960s. This marks the first official archaeological discovery of biblical texts there in 60 years, although many "Dead Sea" scrolls purportedly from the same time and place have been sold on the black market – often subsequently turning out to be fakes.
The discovery of the first Dead Sea Scrolls in 1946 was one of the most influential archaeological finds of all time. The scrolls included religious texts written over several centuries prior to and during Roman occupation. The insights they provided into the culture of Judea around the time of Jesus have been of immense value to historians and religious scholars alike. Further discoveries were made over the next 20 years, although frustratingly most were decayed so only small fragments are readable.
Inevitably such documents attracted a huge price on the black market, and many supposedly found in nearby caves have since surfaced. Some of these could indeed have been dug up by those exploring (read: looting)the area and more keen on profit than expanding human knowledge, but most have been found to be modern-day forgeries.
That seems unlikely to be the case with the latest find, however, as the newly discovered texts were found as part of an official operation by the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA), as part of a national plan to excavate the Judean desert and save any scrolls and antiquities before they are looted.
The approximately 80 new pieces of text come from the “Cave of Horror”, whose name comes from the discovery of 40 skeletons there in the 1960s. The archaeologists responsible for the discovery think that, like many of the previously identified scrolls, these were placed in the cave during the Bar Kochba Rebellion, the last major Jewish attempt to free Judea from Roman rule. The rebellion established independence for two years, but apparently, some foresaw the end and stored their treasures where the Romans were unlikely to find them.
As the video below shows, accessing some of the caves – by rappeling down a sheer rock face – is dangerous even with modern rock-climbing equipment, and probably beyond the reach of all but the most determined Roman soldier at the time, though perhaps not a determined modern-day robber.
The latest discoveries include fragments of the biblical books Zechariah and Nahum, written in Greek, but with God's name written in Hebrew. “We found a textual difference that has no parallel with any other manuscript, either in Hebrew or in Greek,” the Authority's Oren Ableman said at a media conference.
“When we think about the biblical text, we think about something very static. It wasn’t static. There are slight differences and some of those differences are important,” said Joe Uziel. “Every little piece of information that we can add, we can understand a little bit better.”
The IAA announced other discoveries made in the course of exploring 500 desert caves that collectively span the boundary between Israel and the West Bank. These include a 6,000-year-old mummified skeleton of a child and a woven basket radiocarbon dated as 10,500 years old, making it possibly the oldest intact basket in the world.
The IAA says its operation is necessary to beat those who would steal items for the black market, threatening scholars' capacity to study them. However, although the Cave of Horror is in Israel, some of the other caves excavated as part of the same program lie within the occupied West Bank, and when it comes to items extracted from these, the IAA has been accused of being the plunderers.