Photo Credit: Highlight Films, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority
The moment when the Book of the Twelve Minor Prophets scroll was discovered in Muraba‘at Cave.

These verses from Zechariah 8:16-17 were discovered in a cave where Jewish refugees hid almost 1900 years ago:

These are the things you are to do: 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 all those are things that I hate, declares God.

(R-L) Ministry of Culture and Sports CEO Raz Frohlich, Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and Beatriz Riestra CEO Avi Cohen, and a researcher of the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Israel Antiquities Authority, next to the exposed scroll fragments. / Shai Halevi, Israel Antiquities Authority

The verses, written on dozens of parchment fragments, were discovered in a complex and challenging archaeological operation undertaken starting in 2017 by the Israel Antiquities Authority on the cliffs of the Judaean Desert, to prevent the looting of ancient treasures.

The historic find comes 60 years after the last discovery of biblical scrolls in archaeological excavations. In addition to the scroll fragments, the operation uncovered extraordinary finds from various periods: a cache of rare coins from the time of Bar-Kokhva; a 6,000-year-old skeleton of a female child wrapped in cloth and mummified; and a large, complete basket dating back 10,500 years, likely the oldest in the world.

Rappelling to the Cave of Horror. / Eitan Klein, Israel Antiquities Authority

The national project of surveying the caves of the Judaean Desert and their excavation has been undertaken in desert caves and ravines since 2017 by the Israel Antiquities Authority in cooperation with officers of the Archaeology Department of the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria and funded by the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage. On Tuesday the project unveiled its results.

Ever since the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered more than 70 years ago, the desert caves have been targeted by antiquities looters who risk life and limb in their pursuits, as well as damage the caves and destroy historical documents.

Israel Hasson, director-general of the Israel Antiquities Authority, in the desert operation. / Israel Antiquities Authority

“This national initiative aims to rescue these rare and important heritage assets from the robbers’ clutches,” says Israel Antiquities Authority’s director Israel Hasson, who launched the national operation. “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 material that has not yet been discovered in the caves before the robbers do. Some things are beyond value.”

Hasson adds, “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.”

Archaeologists Hagay Hamer and Oriah Amichai sieving finds at the entrance to the Cave of Horror. / Eitan Klein, Israel Antiquities Authority

CEO of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage Avi Cohen says “the scroll fragments containing biblical texts, the coins and the additional finds from the Second Temple Period that were found in this unique project directly attest to the Jewish heritage of the region and the inseparable bond between the Jewish cultural activities and our place in this land. It is very exciting to see these finds and expose them to the public, finds which shed great light on our history. These finds are not just important to our own cultural heritage but to that of the entire world. Without the consistent and coordinated action of the various government offices, the Israel Antiquities Authority, and the Civil Administration, these special assets would not be made accessible to the public, rather would remain in the possession of antiquities looters. The ministry will continue to be part of the project, to complete the mapping of the caves that contain similar finds. The continued project includes the combination of extraordinary professionals and advanced technologies, and we are proud of this unique cooperation, which we applaud”.

A rare cache from the Bar Kokhba period. / Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority

CEO of the Ministry of Sports and Culture Raz Frohlich says “this is a historic discovery, on an international level at this time. Alongside progress and technology, we are reminded of the rich historical heritage of the Jewish people. The importance of this event took an additional turn for me on a personal level when dozens of youth took part in the excavations and were given the chance to meet with the Jewish ethos, which lives on from the days of the Bible, face to face. The Ministry of Culture and Sports will continue to invest in the exposure of our cultural treasures – for future generations.”

Finds from the caves – fragments of Qumran jars and arrowheads from the prehistoric and Roman periods. / Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority

According to Hananya Hizmi, Head Staff Officer of the Archaeology Department of the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria, “this is definitely an exciting moment, as we present and reveal to the public an important and significant piece in the history and culture of the Land of Israel. […] The finds attest to a rich, diverse and complex way of life, as well as to the harsh climatic conditions that prevailed in the region hundreds and thousands of years ago. In addition to the current operation, the Archaeology Department of the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria has invested extensive effort and resources over the years in conserving antiquity sites throughout Judea and Samaria for future generations, while actively enforcing measures to deter antiquities looters from operating in the region.”

Since the operation began in October 2017, three teams led by Oriah Amichai, Hagay Hamer, and Haim Cohen have been systematically surveying the caves in the desert cliffs. The survey is being conducted under the administrative auspices of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Southern Region, headed by Pablo Betzer.

Archaeologist Oriah Amichai holding part of an ancient mat from the desert. / Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

According to Head of the Antiquities Authority Surveys Department Dr. Ofer Sion, the head of the theft-prevention unit Amir Ganor, and the deputy head of the theft-prevention unit Dr. Eitan Klein, the complex operation included employing drones and reaching virtually inaccessible caves with the aid of rappelling techniques and mountain-climbing equipment.

Archaeological excavations were conducted in select caves. The meticulous survey, which included zoological and botanical aspects, is expected to shed light on the study of the Judaean Desert caves. Dozens of youths and members of pre-military preparatory programs joined the archaeological excavations in those areas that are relatively accessible. This is part of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s educational program policy, which seeks to nurture a young generation in the country that is connected to its heritage.

Israel Antiquities Authority researchers examining a newly discovered section of the scroll. / Shai Halevi, Israel Antiquities Authority

The fragments of the Greek scroll of the Book of the Twelve Minor Prophets discovered in the operation were written, uniquely, by two different scribes. The conservation and study of the fragments, conducted by Tanya Bitler, Dr. Oren Ableman, and Beatriz Riestra of the Dead Sea Scrolls Unit at the Israel Antiquities Authority, has allowed for the reconstruction of 11 lines of text, partially preserving the Greek translation of Zechariah 8:16-17. Also identified, on another fragment, are verses from Nahum 1:5-6, “The mountains quake because of Him, And the hills melt. The earth heaves before Him, The world and all that dwell therein. Who can stand before His wrath? Who can resist His fury? His anger pours out like fire, And rocks are shattered because of Him.”

When comparing the text preserved in the newly discovered fragments to the text known to us from other versions, including the verses known in the Masoretic text, numerous differences are notable, some of which were quite surprising. These differences can tell us quite a bit about the transmission of the biblical text up until the days of the Bar-Kokhva Revolt, documenting the changes that occurred over time until reaching us in its current version.

Another exciting aspect about this scroll is that despite most of the text being in Greek, the name of God appears in ancient Hebrew script, known from the times of the First Temple in Jerusalem.

6,000-year-old skeleton of a girl who was buried wrapped in cloth. / Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority

Another astounding discovery was found near the rock wall inside the Cave of Horror: a 6,000-year-old partially mummified skeleton of a child, wrapped in cloth. According to prehistorian Ronit Lupu of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “after moving two flat stones, we discovered a shallow pit intentionally dug beneath them, containing a skeleton of a child placed in a fetal position. It was covered with a cloth around its head and chest, like a small blanket, with its feet protruding from it. It was obvious that whoever buried the child had wrapped her 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. The child’s skeleton and the cloth wrapping were remarkably well preserved and because of the climatic conditions in the cave, a process of natural mummification had taken place; the skin, tendons, and even the hair were partially preserved, despite the passage of time.”

A preliminary study of a CT scan of the child, carried out by Dr. Hila May from Tel Aviv University, suggests that the child was between 6 and 12 years-old.

The 10,500-year-old basket as found in Muraba‘at Cave. / Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

Another find, currently unparalleled worldwide, was discovered by youths from the Nofei Prat pre-military leadership academy in one of the Muraba‘at Caves in the Nahal Darga Reserve: a huge, intact basket with a lid that was also exceptionally well preserved due to the high temperatures and extreme aridity of the region. According to the researchers, the basket dates to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period, approximately 10,500 years ago. As far as they know, this is the oldest basket in the world that has been found completely intact, so its importance is therefore immense.

Conservation work on the basket in the Israel Antiquities Authority’s laboratories. / Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority

The basket had a capacity of 90 to 100 liters (about 25 gallons) and was apparently used for storage. The basket provides fascinating new data on the storage of products some 1,000 years before the invention of pottery. The basket is woven from plant material and its method of weaving is unusual. When it was found it was empty, and only future research of a small amount of soil remaining inside it will help researchers discover what it was used for and what was contained in it.

The excavation of the caves was conducted in difficult conditions. / Israel Antiquities Authority

The study of the skeleton is currently being spearheaded by Ronit Lupu of the Israel Antiquities Authority and Dr. Hila May from the Tel Aviv University School of Medicine. The research of the earliest-known basket is being spearheaded by Dr. Naama Sukenik and Dr. Ianir Milevski of the Israel Antiquities Authority. The skeleton and basket were dated using C14, by Prof. Elisabetta Boaretto of the Scientific Archaeology Unit of the Weizmann Institute of Science.

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