A surprising discovery by archaeologists has unearthed what is being dubbed as the 12th cave in which Dead Sea Scrolls from the Second Temple period were hidden.

The find, representing a milestone in Dead Sea Scroll research, was made by Dr. Oren Gutfeld and Ahiad Ovadia from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute of Archaeology, with the help of Dr. Randall Price and students from Liberty University in Virginia, US.

“This exciting excavation is the closest we’ve come to discovering new Dead Sea scrolls in 60 years. 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,” said Gutfeld, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology and director of the excavation.

Remnant of scroll when removed from jar in Cave 12. Photo by Casey L. Olson and Oren Gutfeld
Remnant of scroll when removed from jar in Cave 12. Photo by Casey L. Olson and Oren Gutfeld

The excavators are the first in over 60 years to discover a new scroll cave and to properly excavate it.

The excavations took place in a cave on the cliffs west of Qumran, near the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea.

The archaeologists said the excavation of the cave revealed that at one time it contained Dead Sea scrolls. Numerous storage jars and lids from the Second Temple period were found hidden in niches along the walls of the cave and deep inside a long tunnel at its rear.

Until now, it was believed that only 11 caves had contained scrolls. The archaeologists said they would like this new cave to be numbered as Cave 12. Like Cave 8, in which scroll jars but no scrolls were found, this cave will receive the designation Q12 (the Q=Qumran standing in front of the number to indicate no scrolls were found).

Meanwhile, the archaeologists said all the jars were broken and their contents removed, and the discovery towards the end of the excavation of a pair of iron pickaxe heads from the 1950s (stored within the tunnel for later use) proves the cave was looted.

Seal made of carnelian stone found in Cave 12. Photo by Casey L. Olson and Oren Gutfeld
Seal made of carnelian stone found in Cave 12. Photo by 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 [in the middle of the last century]. 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,” said Gutfeld.

Other finds in the cave include fragments of scroll wrappings, a string that tied the scrolls, and a piece of worked leather that was a part of a scroll. The finding of pottery and of numerous flint blades, arrowheads, and a decorated stamp seal made of carnelian, a semi-precious stone, proved to the archaeologists that this cave was used in the Chalcolithic and the Neolithic periods.

The excavators said they hope this first excavation in the northern part of the Judean Desert as part of “Operation Scroll” will open the door to further understanding the function of the caves with respect to the scrolls, with the potential of finding new scroll material. The material, when published, will provide important new evidence for scholars of the archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea caves.

“The important discovery of another scroll cave attests to the fact that a lot of work remains to be done in the Judean Desert and finds of huge importance are still waiting to be discovered,” said  Hasson of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

“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.”

Archaeologists and students filter material found in Cave 12. Photo by Casey L. Olson and Oren Gutfeld
Archaeologists and students filter material found in Cave 12. Photo by Casey L. Olson and Oren Gutfeld

The excavation was supported by the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria, by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), and is a part of the new “Operation Scroll” launched at the IAA by its Director-General Israel Hasson, to undertake systematic surveys and to excavate the caves in the Judean Desert.