Archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority have discovered fragments of a biblical scroll dating back nearly 2,000 years, a 10,500-year-old basket, and other exceptionally well-preserved artefacts in their survey of caves in the Judaean Desert.
The more than 20 fragments of parchment recovered from the Cave of Horror – accessible only by rappelling 80m down a sheer cliff-face – have been conserved and studied by Tanya Bitler, Oren Ableman, and Beatriz Riestra of the IAA’s Dead Sea Scrolls unit. They have been identified as a Greek translation of verses from Zechariah (8:16-17) from the Book of the Twelve Minor Prophets: ‘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 the Lord.’
A passage from another book within the Book of the Twelve Minor Prophets (Nahum 1:5-6) has also been identified: ‘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.’
While most of the text is written in Greek, the name of God is written in ancient Hebrew script instead. Interestingly, the fragments, which date from the 2nd century AD, were written by two different hands. There are also some differences between the recently discovered version of the text and other known versions, which may add new details to our understanding of the transmission of biblical text in antiquity.
The Cave of Horror, located in the Nahal Hever canyon, was previously excavated in the 1960s, when skeletons, personal documents, and a prayer written in Hebrew were found. The cave was used as a place of refuge during an uprising against Rome led by Simon Bar Kokhba between AD 132 and 135. Other recently discovered items left behind in the caves of the canyon at this time include coins from the Bar Kokhba Revolt with Jewish symbols like a harp and a date palm, as well as textiles, sandals, and combs.
Much older were the remains of a partially mummified skeleton of a child, who died at the age of 6-12, some 6,000 years ago. Ronit Lupu, a prehistorian with the IAA, said, ‘On moving two flat stones, we discovered a shallow pit intentionally dug beneath them, containing a skeleton of a child placed in a foetal 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 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.’
These discoveries are the result of a national project started in 2017 to prevent the looting of antiquities in the desert caves and ravines. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940s, the caves – with their dry climatic conditions, which have preserved fragile objects like the scrolls – have been the target of looters. To date, 80km of caves have been surveyed by the IAA, working in cooperation with the Staff Officer of the Archaeology Department of the Civil Administration in Judaea and Samaria.
The IAA also announced the discovery of a vast, intact, woven basket with a capacity of 90-100 litres, found with its lid in one of the Murabba‘at Caves in the Nahal Darga Reserve. It has been radiocarbon dated to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period, approximately 10,500 years ago, and it is hoped that further research (including study of the small amount of soil found inside it) will yield new insights into storage before the widespread use of pottery in the region.