Archaeologists search for the last Dead Sea Scrolls in the Cave of the Skulls

Archaeologists search for the last Dead Sea Scrolls in the Cave of the Skulls

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The Israel Antiquities Authority have initiated comprehensive archaeological excavations in the Judean Desert caves, in order to find the last Dead Sea Scrolls, which are among the earliest texts written in the Hebrew language.

The Israel Antiquities Authority and the Heritage Project have initiated excavations in the Judean Desert Caves to save the scrolls from being robbed.

“For years now our most important heritage and cultural assets have been excavated illicitly and plundered in the Judean Desert caves for reasons of greed. The goal of the national plan that we are advancing is to excavate and find all of the scrolls that remain in the caves, once and for all, so that they will be rescued and preserved by the state”, said Israel Hasson director-general of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The Cave of Skulls, where the excavation is taking place, is located about 80 meters from the top of the cliff, and c. 250 m above the base of the wadi.

Because of the difficulty in reaching the site, the Israel Antiquities Authority obtained a special permit from the Nature and Parks Authority to construct an access trail, which requires the use of rappelling equipment for the safety of the participants in the excavation.

An official at the Cave of Skulls (photo credit: courtesy IAA)

More than 500 volunteers and field personnel from Israel and abroad were required for the undertaking, and they are sleeping and living in a camp in desert field conditions.

The current excavation season will end in another two weeks, assuming this will be sufficient time in order to extract the valuable archaeological information from the cave.

“The excavation in Na hal Tse’elim is an operation of extraordinary complexity and scope, and one that has not occurred in the Judean Desert in the past thirty years. Despite the rigorous enforcement actions taken against the antiquities robbers, we still witness acts of severe plundering that unfortunately are possible in such large desert expanses. There are hundreds of caves in cliffs in the area, access to which is both dangerous and challenging. In almost every cave that we examined we found evidence of illicit intervention and it is simply heart-breaking. The loss of the finds is irreversible damage that cannot be tolerated”, said Amir Ganor of the IAA´s unit for prevention of Antiquities robbery.

Qumran cave 4 in the Judean Desert, where ninety percent of the scrolls were found

What are the Dead Sea Scrolls

Over 50 years ago, a stone thrown by a Bedouin shepherd into a cave led to what some have called the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century. The Bedouin heard the stone crack open an earthenware jar. Upon investigating, he found the first of what came to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Two examples of the pottery that held some of the Dead Sea Scrolls documents found at Qumran.

When all the scrolls and fragments were sorted out, they accounted for about 800 manuscripts. About one quarter, or just over 200 manuscripts, are copies of portions of the Hebrew Bible text. Additional manuscripts represent ancient non-Biblical Jewish writings, both Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha.

Some of the scrolls that most excited scholars were previously unknown writings. These include interpretations on matters of Jewish law, specific rules for the community of the sect that lived in Qumran, liturgical poems and prayers, as well as eschatological works that reveal views about the fulfillment of Bible prophecy and the last days. There are also unique Bible commentaries, the most ancient antecedents of modern running commentary on Bible texts.

A fragment from the Dead Sea Scrolls collection known as the Damascus document

Now efforts are being made to rescue the remainder of the scrolls hidden for more then two thousand years in the Judean desert caves.

"It is exciting to see the extraordinary work of the volunteers, who have lent a hand and participated in the excavation in complicated field conditions, out of a desire to join in an historic undertaking and discover finds that can provide priceless information about our past here. The time has come for the state to underwrite broad action so as to rescue the cultural assets of enormous historical importance while they still remain in the caves. Substantial amounts need to be allocated which will allow the Israel Antiquities Authority to embark upon a large scale operation for studying the desert, including the caves, and excavating the artifacts. After all, the Dead Sea scrolls are of religious, political and historical importance to Jews, Christians and all of humanity”, Hasson concluded.

Volunteers at work in the archaeological excavation. Photographic credit: Yoli Shwartz, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Archaeologists Might Have Found Another Dead Sea Scroll Cave

In the late 1940s, teenagers explored a cave hidden in the flanks of jagged hills of Wadi Qumran in the Judean Desert. Inside, they discovered fragments of the original Dead Sea Scrolls—ancient collections of text that contain the oldest-known biblical manuscripts. Since then, archaeologists have found 11 Qumran caves that they have extensively excavated in search of the precious scrolls that date back more than 2,000 years ago. Now, a team of archaeologists from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Liberty University in Virginia have discovered what they believe to be a 12th cave on the cliffs west of Qumran.

The Hebrew University press release writes that in the first wide-scale survey in the area since 1993, the team unearthed storage jars and lids from the Second Temple period (dating from 530 BC to 70 CE) in the cave that some scholars are already calling number 12. They also found a pair of iron pickaxe heads that they identified as being from the 1950s, suggesting the cave had been looted.

Oren Gutfeld, an archaeologist at Hebrew University who was part of the dig, says he is confident that the newly discovered cave once contained Dead Sea Scrolls. “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,” he says in the release.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are first-person accounts of history, and the information they contain is priceless. As Andrew Lawler explained in Smithsonian Magazine: “The Dead Sea Scrolls—comprising more than 800 documents made of animal skin, papyrus and even forged copper—deepened our understanding of the Bible and shed light on the histories of Judaism and Christianity.”

In addition to Biblical text, the scrolls contain hymns, prayers, commentaries, and mystical formulas, Lawler writes. They’re so valuable that a fragment of an original scroll the size of a fingernail can cost up to $1,000,000, the Biblical Museum at Liberty University notes.

The new discovery has Israel Hasson, director-general of the Israel Antiquities Authority, calling for more funding to systematically search all caves in the Judean Desert for artifacts that have yet to be discovered. “We are in a race against time as antiquities thieves steal heritage assets worldwide for financial gain,” he says in the release.

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The Cave of Horror is one of a series of eight caves in the canyon of Naḥal Ḥever, which were used as places of refuge during a Jewish revolt against Rome (132–135 CE) in the time of the emperor Hadrian. The revolt was led by Simon bar Kochba (or Simon bar Kosebah, as he is also known in ancient sources), who was thought by his followers to be the Messiah.

The cave has been known to archaeologists since 1953, but it wasn’t until 1961 that it was excavated by a team led by the Israeli archaeologist, Yonahan Aharoni. The new fragments were found as part of a larger project to search for new manuscripts, which is being conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).

The cave is remote and difficult to access, which is doubtless why it was used as a hiding place. Aharoni describes the entrance as being 80 meters below the edge of the canyon with a drop of hundreds of meters below it. The team who first explored the cave in 1955 had to use a 100-meter-long rope ladder to reach the opening.

The nickname Cave of Horror was given to the cave because of a large number of skeletons, including children’s skeletons, that were found inside. Together with the skeletons were personal documents, a fragmentary copy of a prayer written in Hebrew, and the scroll to which these fragments belong, which was hidden at the back of the cave.

Remains of a Roman camp at the top of the cliff suggests the refugees sheltering there died as a result of a Roman siege. The occupants were determined not to surrender. There were no signs of wounds on the skeletons, suggesting the occupants died as a result of hunger and thirst, or possibly smoke inhalation from a fire in the centre of the cave.

They buried their most prized possessions, including the scroll from which these fragments come, to keep them safe.

The photographs and reports released by the IAA indicate the fragments contain our earliest copy of Zechariah 8:16–17 and one of our earliest copies of Nahum 1:5–6. The fragments appear to be missing pieces of a scroll already known to scholars — the Greek Minor Prophets scroll from Naḥal Ḥever, or 𔄠ḤevXIIgr” to give it its official designation.

As the name suggests, the scroll is a copy of the Greek translation of the biblical minor prophets, containing portions of the books of Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, and Zechariah. The “minor prophets” or “the twelve” customarily describes the books spanning from Hosea to Malachi in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament.

Among other things, the minor prophets include the story of Jonah being swallowed by a “great fish”.

The ancient Hebrew scriptures were first translated into Greek for the benefit of Greek-speaking Jews who had begun to lose contact with their Hebrew roots. Ancient sources, such as the letter of Aristeas, indicate the work of translating the scriptures into Greek probably began in Egypt, some time around 200 years before Christ.

A fascinating feature of the Greek Minor Prophets scroll is the fact the name of God is written in Hebrew, not Greek. This practice stems back to the prohibition in Exodus 20:7 against “taking God’s name in vain”.

The Dead Sea Scrolls attest several practices for avoiding accidentally pronouncing the divine name while reading aloud. These include substituting dots in place of the letters and the use of an archaic form of the Hebrew alphabet.

This custom is the basis for the modern practice of writing Lord in capital letters in modern editions of the Bible.

Shortly after the discovery of the first Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 it became apparent the rare ancient manuscripts had financial value. This led to a race between archaeologists and local Bedouin to discover more scroll fragments.

Consequently, it can be difficult to verify the archaeological provenance of many of the Dead Sea Scrolls remnants.

More recently, fake scrolls have found their way into at least one modern museum collection. A new manuscript discovery with secure archaeological provenance, like the one announced last week, is immensely important.

Perhaps most excitingly, these new fragments leave open the tantalizing possibility there are more scrolls out there, waiting to be found.

Professor Rachel Elior, of the Hebrew University, claims that the abundance of the textual finding in the Dead Sea Scrolls is but a testimony to the successful attempt of the rabbinic leadership to wipe out entire narratives from the canonical codex for political-religious purposes. This indicates that Judaism as known to us today seems to have been somewhat diverted from Judaism of King David and the prophets of first temple time.

Elior’s assumption and the affiliation between some of the inner texts of the Dead Sea cult and ideas, reflected in the New Testament, can lead to some poignant conclusions about the evolution of the monotheistic religions.

Some intriguing documentary films have recently exposed harsh controversies between various research groups around the world. To prevent a controversy the ‘opponent’ universities were not allowed to observe (let alone examine) some significant fragments. This is not surprising, once understanding the perilous potential of new revelations to arouse scandals in the academic and religious world.

There is no doubt that the Dead Sea Scrolls are one of the most fascinating and mysterious issues in historical research of the Holy Land, and is rightly titled by some: the most important archaeological discovery in the world.

Dead Sea Scroll discoveries open a new window into early humanity

Israeli archaeologists announced this week the discovery of dozens of new Dead Sea Scroll fragments . Found in a desert cave and likely stashed away during a Jewish revolt against Rome nearly 1,900 years ago, the scraps of biblical texts offer a rare window into the history of Judaism, early Christian life, and humankind.

CBS News' Imtiaz Tyab reports that when the first fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found over 70 years ago, it was widely considered to be one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.

To make the new discovery, archaeologists rappelled down a sheer cliff into the Cave of Horrors &ndash so named for the dozens of human remains found inside. But while the history of the cave is as dark as its name implies, excavators have described what they found inside as "between heaven and Earth."

Dozens of fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls were uncovered after nearly two millennia. The pieces of parchment are small &mdash some miniscule &mdash but they're big enough to draw wisdom from, according to Dr. Oren Ableman.

"These are the things you are to do," he quotes from one of the fragments' Greek text. "Speak the truth to one another, render true and perfect justice in your gates and do not contrive evil against one another. And do not love perjury because those are things that I hate, declares the Lord."

An archaeologist at the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) shows an ancient lice comb from the Bar Kochba Jewish revolt period, excavated from an area in the Judean Desert, after conservation work is done at the IAA's Dead Sea conservation laboratory in Jerusalem, March 16, 2021. MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty

The arid conditions of the Judean Desert ensured that dozens of other objects found alongside the scroll fragments also withstood the test of time, including ancient olive pits remnants of clothing and sandals and a wooden lice comb similar to one that might be used today.

Protecting culture, or stealing it?

Archaeologist Chaim Cohen says the four-year project has been vital to protect the treasures inside the cave system from future plunder.

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"This project is the protection of the area because, again, it is almost impossible to beat the looters," he said. "They're working, and the solution was to get to the case before the looters."

The massive excavation site spans parts of southern Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank . Israel has long been criticized for removing objects found in the Palestinian territories.

According to international law, taking cultural property from an occupied territory is forbidden, but those concerns haven't prevented the Israeli Antiquities Authority from putting the discoveries on display.

Beyond the biblical

Some of the artifacts go well beyond the biblical, including the 6,000-year-old skeleton of a small child, and an almost perfectly preserved basket, which wouldn't look too out of place at a home furnishings store today.

Archaeologist at the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) Haim Cohen shows a 10,500-year-old basket, dating back to the Neolithic period, that was unearthed in Murabaat Cave in the Judean Desert, displayed at the IAA's Dead Sea conservation laboratory in Jerusalem, March 16, 2021. MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty

"We didn't understand because we thought the cave is empty, and then when we came we were looking at a whole huge intact basket," said Yaniv Berman, of the Antiquities Authority. He said when they got the results of carbon dating analysis, "we were shocked! It is 10,500 years old!"

It was another dazzling puzzle piece from the past, found alongside ancient wisdoms that still resonate today.

Searching for remains of the Dead Sea Scrolls

The disposable paper face masks offer little protection from the clouds of dust that fill the cliffside cave where Israeli archaeologists are wrapping up the largest excavation in the Judean desert of the past half-century.

Clipped into safety harnesses, volunteers stand at the cave opening, 250 metres (820 feet) above a dry river bed that leads to the lowest spot on earth, the Dead Sea.

They sift through an endless supply of dirt-filled buckets, and the dust they throw in the air reaches the far corners of the cave where a dozen workers crawling on hands and knees can't help but cough.

The three-week excavation was the first part of a national campaign to recover as many artefacts as possible, particularly scrolls, left behind by Jewish rebels who hid in the desert some 2,000 years ago, before they are snatched up by antiquity robbers.

"These looters that operate in the area are experts at finding scrolls. We go after them, look for what they are looking for and try to catch them," said Guy Fitoussi, head of the Israel Antiquities Authority robbery prevention unit in southern Israel. "This is the game. Like cat and mouse."

The Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of ancient texts written on papyrus and parchment, have already been rescued by scholars.

They are among the earliest texts written in the Hebrew language and are on display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem as a national treasure.

Now Israel wants to uncover whatever may remain in the desert hideouts before it is destroyed or ends up on the black market.

According to Israeli law, all relics found on land or at sea belong to the state. Fitoussi, a pistol-packing archaeologist with authority to arrest looters, and his team catch about 100 of them each year. Most are fined some are sent to jail.

In 2014, they arrested six people who were plundering this particular cavern, known as the Cave of Skulls, where seven skulls had been found from Jews of the Bar Kokhba rebellion against Rome in the 2nd century.

That raid, Fitoussi said, helped spur the multi-year government-backed excavation programme and focused their initial efforts at this site, about a two-hour drive southeast from Jerusalem.

To access the cave, diggers don climbing gear and descend 20 minutes from their campsite along a steep path that hugs the rocky cliff. Inside, the grotto expands 160 square metres (1,720 square feet), including a number of cramped tunnels that extend deep into the mountain.

The limestone walls of the dry desert cave are perfect for preservation, said Uri Davidovich, an archaeologist from Tel Aviv University who was one of the dig's directors.

One 19-year-old volunteer, working flat on her belly in a dark crawl space, dirt mixed with sweat covering her face and digging with her fingers, unearthed a thin, 25 centimetre (10 inch)-long rope that most likely was used by the Bar Kokhba rebels. A rope this length was a rare discovery, Davidovich said.

They haven't found any scrolls yet, he said, but the artefacts found in this cave, and countless others nearby, will provided historians rare insight into how people lived 2,000 to 8,000 years ago.

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The cave lies in the stark desert cliff west of Qumran, near the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. The team, led by Dr. Oren Gutfeld and Ahiad Ovadia from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem with Dr. Randall Price and students from Liberty University in Virginia, say it should by right be numbered as Dead Sea Scrolls Cave No. 12.

Fault cliff and cave entrance on the left: Dead Sea Scrolls Cave 12 Casey L. Olson and Oren Gutfeld

If they are right, it is the first new "scroll cave" to be identified in over 60 years.

Evidence that the cave once housed scrolls is indirect. A number of lidded pottery jars of a type typical of the Second Temple period between (530 BCE to 70 CE) were found concealed in niches along the walls of the cave, and deep inside a long tunnel at its rear, say the archaeologists.

But the jars were all broken and their contents were removed. Why accuse modern Bedouins? Because the archaeologists also found two iron pickaxe heads from the 1950s that had been left inside the tunnel, presumably for reuse.

Cave 8 had been the same - scroll jars but no parchments were found. At least none with writing. One jar in Cave 12 did contain a rolled up parchment, but it was blank.

"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," said 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."

Prehistoric man slept there too

Aside from the shattered jars and scroll debris, the archaeologists found an elaborate stamp seal made of the semi-precious stone carnelian – and evidence that prehistoric man had once dwelled in these cliffside desert caves too.

The Israeli desert seems profoundly inhospitable but the fact is that it's been sporadically inhabited since human species started moving out of Africa. The archaeologists' finding in Cave 12 include flint blades and arrowheads.

In 2016, archaeologists announced the genetic sequencing of barley seeds from 6,000 years ago, which had been found in an exceptionally inaccessible cave 100 meters below the lip of the ancient Masada fortress, near the Dead Sea.

It bears note that the archaeologists suspect that particular cave where the ancient grains were found can only be reached by climbing down a sheer cliff face, leading then to suspect that it served as somebody’s prehistoric refuge, rather than a regular residence.

Cloth that was used over 2,000 years ago to wrap the scrolls, left behind by looters. Casey L. Olson and Oren Gutfeld

Also, just this December, a different archaeological team announced finding new fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, in the Cave of the Skulls, also of course by the Dead Sea. The pieces are small and the writing on them is too faded to make out without advanced analysis. At this stage the archaeologists aren't even sure if they're written in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic or another language.

The first Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947 by a Bedouin shepherd who idly chucked a rock into a cave in the vicinity of Qumran. He heard the sound of breaking pottery, got curious and the rest is history. The Judean Desert hills have been kind to archaeological artifacts thanks to the aridity, which helped preserve organic material.

Bible scroll fragments among dazzling artifacts found in Dead Sea Cave of Horror

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

In a stunningly rare discovery, dozens of 2,000-year-old biblical scroll fragments have been excavated from Judean Desert caves during a daring rescue operation. Most of the newly discovered scroll fragments — the first such finds in 60 years — are Greek translations of the books of Zechariah and Nahum from the Book of the Twelve Minor Prophets, and are written in two scribal hands. Only the name of God is written in Hebrew in the texts.

The fragments from the Prophets have been identified as coming from a larger scroll that was found in the 1950s, in the same “Cave of Horror” in Nahal Hever, which is some 80 meters (260 feet) below a cliff top. According to an Israel Antiquities Authority press release, the cave is “flanked by gorges and can only be reached by rappelling precariously down the sheer cliff.”

Along with the “new” biblical scroll fragments from the Books of the Minor Prophets, the team excavated a huge 10,500-year-old perfectly preserved woven basket — the oldest complete basket in the world — and a 6,000-year-old mummified skeleton of a child, tucked into its blanket for a final sleep.

Since 2017, the IAA has spearheaded an unprecedented rescue operation to salvage ancient artifacts from caves throughout the Judean Desert against the rampant looting that has occurred in the area since the much-heralded — and lucrative — discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls by Bedouin shepherds some 70 years ago. On Tuesday morning, a sample of the dazzling discoveries were unveiled for the first time.

“The desert team showed exceptional courage, dedication and devotion to purpose, rappelling down to caves located between heaven and earth, digging and sifting through them, enduring thick and suffocating dust, and returning with gifts of immeasurable worth for mankind,” said Israel Antiquities Authority’s director Israel Hasson, who led the widespread rescue operation, in an IAA press release.

“The newly discovered scroll fragments are a wake-up call to the state. Resources must be allocated for the completion of this historically important operation. We must ensure that we recover all the data that has not yet been discovered in the caves before the robbers do. Some things are beyond value,” Hasson said.

In an optimistic attempt to be one step ahead of looters, the inter-departmental national project was launched in 2017 to survey Judean Desert caves. A few promising caves were subsequently excavated at some colorfully named locations, including the Cave of Horror — where over 40 skeletons have thus far been uncovered — and the Cave of Skulls. About 20 more promising caves could be excavated in the next stage of the operation, provided the budget is allocated.

The operation was undertaken by the IAA, in cooperation with the Staff Officer of the Archaeology Department of the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria, and funded by the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage. About half of the Judean Desert, including the original source of most of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran, is located in the West Bank beyond the Green Line.

“For years we chased after antiquities looters. We finally decided to pre-empt the thieves and try reaching the artifacts before they were removed from the ground and the caves,” said Amir Ganor, head of the IAA’s Theft Prevention Unit.

So far, some 80 kilometers (50 miles) and 500 caves have been systematically surveyed by three teams led by IAA archaeologists Oriah Amichai, Hagay Hamer and Haim Cohen. Ganor estimates that about 25 percent of the Judean Desert has not yet been surveyed. Using drones and high-tech rappelling and mountain-climbing gear, archaeologists and a team of volunteers from pre-military academies have been able to access many hitherto “unreachable” caves — some of which hadn’t been entered by a human being for almost two millennia.

The biblical scrolls are among the highlights of the newly excavated artifacts, but are by no means the only extraordinary discoveries:

‘New’ biblical scrolls

Looters and archaeologists alike have combed the Judean Desert since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls some 70 years ago. Aside from two silver scrolls engraved with the biblical Priestly Blessing (from the late 7th to early 6th century BCE) discovered in Ketef Hinnom in Jerusalem, the Dead Sea Scrolls are considered the earliest known copies of the biblical books and span from circa 400 BCE to 300 CE.

The latest identified finds, two dozen 2,000-year-old biblical scroll fragments from the books of Zechariah and Nahum, were discovered in clumps and rolled up in the Cave of Horror. The conservation and study of the fragments was conducted by the IAA’s Dead Sea Scrolls Unit under Tanya Bitler, Dr. Oren Ableman and Beatriz Riestra.

The team has so far reconstructed 11 lines of Greek text that was translated from Zechariah 8:16–17, as well as verses from Nahum 1:5–6. They join nine, much more extant fragments that were discovered by Yochanan Aharoni, who first surveyed the Cave of Horrors in 1953.

On the new fragments, as well as in the Greek translation scroll discovered by Aharoni, only the name of God appears in Hebrew. It is written in the Paleo-Hebrew script used during the First Temple period, as well as by some adherents of the Bar Kochba revolt (132–136 CE), including on coinage, and in the Qumran community.

Among the academic fruit already born of the new discovery is the realization that the “new” Greek translation is different from the traditional Masoretic texts.

“These differences can tell us quite a bit regarding the transmission of the biblical text up until the days of the Bar Kochba Revolt, documenting the changes that occurred over time until reaching us in the current version,” said the IAA.

Oldest basket in the world

IKEA would do well to take note of the craftsmanship shown on a stunning woven basket dating from some 10,500 years ago — some 1,000 years prior to the first known pottery vessels — which was hailed by the IAA as “currently unparalleled worldwide.”

The massive 90-100 liter (24-26 gallon)-volume receptacle was discovered by youth volunteers from the Nofei Prat pre-military leadership academy. The exciting discovery took place in one of the Muraba’at Caves, which have previously offered up caches of Roman-era papers and Bar Kochba Revolt remnants, which are found in the Nahal Darga Reserve.

The basket is being studied by the IAA’s Dr. Naama Sukenik and Dr. Ianir Milevski and was dated using carbon-14, by Prof. Elisabetta Boaretto of the Scientific Archaeology Unit of the Weizmann Institute of Science.

Due to the arid climate of the region, the huge Pre-Pottery Neolithic period basket, woven in a unique style from plant material, was preserved whole. “As far as we know, this is the oldest basket in the world that has been found completely intact and its importance is therefore immense,” said the IAA.

Unfortunately, the basket was discovered empty. “Only future research of a small amount of soil remaining inside it will help us discover what it was used for and what was placed in it,” said the IAA.

Mummified child

Some 6,000 years ago, a parent tucked his child in with a blanket for its eternal sleep. The complete skeleton is being researched by the IAA’s Ronit Lupu and Dr. Hila May from the Tel Aviv University School of Medicine, who estimate it was 6-12 years old, based on a CT scan.

Fittingly, the cloth-wrapped child was discovered in the Cave of Horror. According to prehistorian Lupu, after moving two flat stones, the team discovered that a shallow pit had been intentionally dug beneath the stones that held the child’s skeleton, which was placed in a fetal position and covered with a cloth around its head and chest.

“It was obvious that whoever buried the child had wrapped him up and pushed the edges of the cloth beneath him, just as a parent covers his child in a blanket. A small bundle of cloth was clutched in the child’s hands,” said Lupu. Due to the arid conditions in the cave, the child was naturally mummified. The cloth and other organic materials, including hair and even skin and tendons, were likewise preserved.

Bar Kochba stash and cache

Several of the caves offered random finds left behind by Jewish rebels who fled to the caves at the end of the Bar Kochba Revolt, including a cache of coins that were overstruck with Jewish rebels’ symbols such as a harp and a date palm, an array of arrowheads and spearheads, pieces of woven fabric, sandals and lice combs, which illustrated the everyday items taken by the fleeing Jews.

Ofer Sion, head of the IAA’s Surveys Department, said, “The high cliffs of 300-400 meters [985-1,300 feet] in a single drop with these enigmatic ravines that no one reaches were the ultimate haven. And in one period in human history, families fled to the caves in the Judean Desert, and we really don’t know anything else.”

Archaeologist Oriah Amichai explained that the families clearly planned what they would be taking from home, “when one day, when the war will be finished, what they will be able to use to build a new life. We come here and reconstruct the lives of those who didn’t survive in the end,” she said.

The ongoing operation intends to continue searching for vestiges of the past that connect with all Israeli citizens, regardless of creed. As emphasized by Avi Cohen, the CEO of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, “These finds are not just important to our own cultural heritage, but to that of the entire world.”

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Antiquities market

In addition to the new scrolls reportedly being found in the Judaean Desert, some have supposedly turned up on the antiquities market. In 2016, approximately 25 previously unpublished fragments of "Dead Sea Scrolls," supposedly from Qumran, were described in two separate books. Research indicates that some of these scrolls are likely forgeries, while others may not be from Qumran but rather other caves in the Judaean Desert.

Over the past 15 years, about 70 alleged Dead Sea Scrolls fragments have turned up on the antiquities market, Eibert Tigchelaar, a professor of theology and religious studies at the University of Leuven in Belgium, told Live Science last fall. Some of these 70 fragments are likely either forgeries or from other Judaean Desert caves, he said.

In the time since Live Science interviewed Tigchelaar, a company called Les Enluminures, which sells ancient and medieval manuscripts, has sold 15 fragments of "Dead Sea Scrolls" to an undisclosed institution in the United States. "The scrolls are now in an institution in the United States. I am not at liberty to reveal which one, until they make their own public announcement," said company CEO Sandra Hindman.

The company said these fragments were found by the bedouin who sold them to Shahin in the early 1960s. The asking price for all 15 fragments was $1 million. "We have absolutely no doubts about their authenticity," Hindman said. Tigchelaar said that he will need to wait until higher quality photographs of the scroll fragments are available before he can analyze the fragments in detail.

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