In the spring of 1947, Bedouin shepherds from the Ta’amira tribe, who were searching for their lost goats in the desolate ravines near the shore of the Dead Sea, stumbled upon a cave containing pottery jars filled with ancient scrolls.
They were attracted to the cave by the fallen stones that had exposed an entranceway to an ancient hiding place. Once in, they discovered the floor strewn with potsherds (broken pottery pieces) from the lids of the jars. There were approximately 50 jars in the cave. Protruding from each of the exposed jars was carefully rolled ancient manuscripts.
Looking for a Quick Dollar
Hoping that their lucky find might be of some monetary value they grabbed a few scrolls and set off across the Judean desert for neighbouring Bethlehem where seven were quickly sold to an antiquities dealer. News soon spread to the academic community when, a year later, they were on sold to universities and professionals.
Soon after the discovery, large-scale excavations were carried out at the site of Qumran on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth. It was not until 1949 that the site of the find was re-identified and the cave became known as Qumran Cave #1. Once located, further explorations and excavations of the area of Khirbet Qumran began. More searches of Cave #1 revealed a number of additional manuscript fragments plus archaeological finds of pottery, cloth and wood. All these discoveries helped decisively prove that the scrolls were genuinely ancient.
The Essene Community
Archaeological excavations in the immediate vicinity have unearthed the remains of an entire community. It is believed that an old, strictly religious order, known as the Essenes, inhabited this settlement during the first century AD. Due to hostilities by the Roman army they were forced to flee their homes, high on the Judean plateau and before departing stored their sacred scripts deep in hidden caves.
Apart from the book of Esther, every book of the Old Testament was found, as well as some books of the Apocrypha, along with scrolls explaining the sect’s beliefs and code of practice, hymns and prayers. Most important to Biblical scholars was that these scrolls were almost 1000 years older than the oldest previously discovered manuscripts and yet they were amazingly similar. This seemed to corroborate the view that the bible had remained unchanged since it was first written.
More Caves Discovered
Over the next seven years there was a race between Bedouin and archaeologists to find more artefacts. Ten additional caves were uncovered in Qumran’s surrounding hills. These caves yielded several more scrolls as well as thousands of fragments of manuscripts.
The scrolls had lain dormant for a very long period of time in the cave’s intensely dry heat. They were parched and highly brittle. Each scroll was like a giant rolled up crisp. It required slow, deliberate work to gently unroll each of the delicate scrolls. The texts are of great religious and historical significance. They had survived for 2000 years.
University scientists used film based infrared photography to read the black ink on the age-blackened papyri. But this proved to have serious limitations.
In 1993, NASA combined modern space-age digital infrared imaging to the ancient scripts using microwaves. Using a multi-spectral camera fitted with a liquid-crystal filter, unseen text in the scrolls became visible by rapidly changing the wavelengths.
Among the 850 or so documents discovered is the entire book of Isaiah. A copy of which is located in the architecturally designed Shrine of the Book Museum in Jerusalem, Israel. The museum is underground with its roof fashioned in the shape of a lid from the Qumran jars.
The Writing Room
Qumran and her famous caves have given us a fresh view into the Essene community of the first century. The story of how those scrolls travelled from the hands of young Bedouin goat herders to be under the analysing eyes of international scholars is just as fascinating. The ruins of the former settlement boast storehouses, aqueducts, ritual baths and an assembly hall. One of the most interesting rooms excavated is the scriptorium, identified by two inkwells discovered there along with some bench seating for scribes. It is believed that in this room, all of the discovered manuscripts were written.