Israeli archeologists have recovered dozens of Dead Sea Scroll fragments from a site known as the Cave of Horror, amid a broader excavation that also turned up a millennia-old mummified child and the world’s oldest basket.
The researchers unveiled their discoveries on Tuesday after an extensive operation in the Judean Desert east of Jersualem, where they spent four years searching hundreds of caves in the historic area.
They found several ancient relics from different millennia, including the Dead Sea Scroll fragments from about 2,000 years ago, a child’s mummified skeleton from roughly 6,000 years ago and a woven basket thought to be 10,500 years old.
The full Dead Sea Scroll collection includes the earliest known copies of most books in the Hebrew Bible, along with writings about a little-known Jewish sect and other apocryphal stories.
The Dead Sea Scroll fragments are the first new additions to the collection in 60 years and are thought to date back to the same period when the others were written some 2,000 to 2,300 years ago. The documents together offer a glimpse of what Jewish society and religion was like in the centuries before and after the time of Jesus.
“These are new pieces of the puzzle and we can add them to our greater picture of the period and of the text,” said Oren Ableman of the Antiquities Authority’s Dead Sea Scrolls unit.
“Even though these pieces are small, they did give us some new information that we did not know before.”
Most of the previously known Dead Sea Scroll fragments were recovered from desert caves in the West Bank area in the 1940s and 50s, in one of the most monumental archeological discoveries of the last century. They’ve been a popular and controversial topic of study ever since.
The 80 new fragments announced on Tuesday are expected to yield more discoveries once they’ve been fully analyzed, according to IAA researchers. The tattered bits of parchment feature Greek text from the manuscripts of Zechariah and Nahum, and are written in a first-century style. Both manuscripts come from the Book of the 12 Minor Prophets in the Bible.
“When we think about the biblical text, we think about something very static,” said Joe Uziel, head of the antiquities authority’s Dead Sea Scrolls unit.
“It wasn’t static,” he said. “There are slight differences and some of those differences are important.”
Experts have already deciphered a few verses from Zechariah, which they shared on Tuesday with the New York Times.
“These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to one another, render true and perfect justice in your gates,” one excerpt read. “And do not contrive evil against one another, and do not love perjury, because all those are things that I hate — declares the Lord.”
It’s believed that the scrolls were hidden in the cave some 1,900 years ago, when Jewish rebels were taking shelter from the ruling Romans after a revolt. The Romans ultimately tracked the rebels down and laid siege to the cave until everyone inside had starved.
The site was dubbed the Cave of Horror in the 1960s after archeologists found 40 skeletons and nine Dead Sea Scroll fragments inside.
The IAA recently searched the site as part of a broader effort to recover archeological treasures from the hundreds of caves along the West Bank amid concerns about them being plundered.
“For the first time in 70 years, we were able to pre-empt the plunderers,” said Amir Ganor, head of the antiquities theft prevention unit.
Archeologists say they also recovered the mummified body of a child from approximately 6,000 years ago. The child’s body was in the fetal position and wrapped in a cloth.
Additionally, they recovered a fully intact woven basket that dates back to the Neolithic period some 10,500 years ago. The artifact is thought to be the oldest complete basket in existence.
Other treasures included ancient coins, arrowheads, bits of fabric, clothing and a lice comb with a long-dead louse trapped in its teeth.
Many of the artifacts were found in caves nestled away in desert crevices along the boundary between Israel and the occupied West Bank. The IAA decided to scour those caves to prevent treasure hunters from looting them and later trying to sell the relics on the black market.
“The desert team showed exceptional courage, dedication and devotion to purpose, rappelling down to caves located between heaven and earth,” Israel Hasson, the departing director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, told the New York Times.
The hot, dry conditions of the desert provided near-perfect conditions to preserve the various relics for millennia.
—With files from The Associated Press and Reuters