Sixty years after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, archaeologists discovered a new cave on Wednesday, Feb. 9 that once housed the scrolls. Likely looted decades ago, it contained pottery shards, broken scroll jars, lids and other scroll wrappings. Though the scrolls themselves were gone, the finding holds significance as another piece in the yet-unfinished puzzle of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the exploration of the Qumran caves in the Judean desert, located just east of Jerusalem in the Israeli-controlled West Bank.

Until last week, archaeologists widely believed that just 11 caves in the Judean desert contained Dead Sea Scrolls — a collection of over 1,000 ancient manuscripts which are, according to professor of archaeology Dr. Daniel Master, “the single most important archaeological discovery for biblical studies in the last hundred years.”

“Even though no complete new scrolls have been found, this is still a major find,” said Dr. Jordan Ryan, visiting assistant professor of archaeology. “The discovery of Cave 12 raises the tantalizing possibility that there are more caves with Scrolls at Qumran waiting to be found.”

First unearthed by Bedouin shepherds in 1947, the scrolls are the oldest copies of biblical books that scholars can currently access. For decades, archaeologists have been piecing together scrolls from fragments found in the caves at Qumran and trying to place them in historical time using carbon dating methods. According to Ryan, the scrolls date to the late Second Temple period — the time during which the events narrated in Gospels and Acts take place. The scrolls shed light on Jewish belief and practice from that time, providing critical background for understanding the world of the New Testament.

The discovery of the 12th cave met with varied levels of enthusiasm from scholars; though the existence of a new Dead Sea Scrolls cave is certainly a significant step, the cave had nevertheless been ransacked of most valuables. Looting is a major problem for archaeologists; the scrolls in the 12th cave were likely taken and sold on the black market, like many other potentially significant artifacts over the past century. Looted objects are, as Ryan explained, “removed from their context” and sold with little information about where they came from, closing many doors to archaeologists seeking to learn more.

“It is not yet clear what this discovery will add that we don’t already know from the other caves,” Master said. “It might be more of the same, and I haven’t yet seen anything new.  However, because the scrolls are so important, anything related to them carries some of the aura of that discovery.”

Ryan pointed out three ways in which the 12th cave, even without scrolls, could still be highly meaningful as an archeological discovery.

First, it suggests the possibility of more Dead Sea Scrolls than have yet to be unearthed. This is significant both for further excavation of the cliffs, which are located in the Israeli-controlled West Bank.

 

Furthermore, the discovery adds meaning to the “unprovenanced” Dead Sea Scrolls — in plainer terms, the scrolls which have an unknown historical context. It bolsters evidence that the scrolls archeologists already have did indeed come from the Qumran caves.

 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the 12th cave did contain small pieces of parchment, albeit no full scrolls. It is these tiny pieces like these which have lent meaning to the Scrolls since their initial discovery.
“Even though the fragments are small, even a little bit of writing from the Second Temple period should be treated as a major find worth celebrating,” Ryan said.