The Time We Lost The Dead Sea Scrolls (Again)

By Debra Kelly on Wednesday, June 3, 2015
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“No man can lose what he never had.” —Izaak Walton, “The Compleat Angler”

In A Nutshell

In 1947, the Dead Sea Scrolls were uncovered in a cave outside Jericho. The scrolls were carefully recovered and preservation efforts undertaken, but sometime in those efforts, some of the scrolls were lost. No one even knew that they were gone until they were found in 2013 by a researcher who wondered if there was anything in the unopened cases that he’d stumbled across in some climate-controlled warehouses belonging to the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The Whole Bushel

The random discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was one of the most earth-shattering finds in archaeological history. As a quick recap, in 1947, goatherds outside of Jericho discovered the scrolls hidden in a cave. The Hebrew manuscripts included an almost complete version of the Bible and allowed for the most accurate dating of the work yet.

There were also other manuscripts, too, like the blueprints for the Temple of Jerusalem. It’s thought they were hidden in the cave to keep them safe from invaders, and for a long time, they were absolutely off-limits to many researchers who wanted to get a look at them. First controlled by the Jordan Department of Antiquities then the Israel Antiquities Authority, it was only in 1991 that they were made available for more widespread study.

And it wasn’t until 2013 that researchers realized that they’d misplaced a few.

They hadn’t even known that the nine scrolls were missing, they’d simply been set aside and forgotten about. When an Ariel University researcher was looking through the warehouses of the Israel Antiquities Authority, he found a weirdly out-of-place phylactery.

A phylactery (the Hebrew word is tefillin) is a leather case used to keep and protect scrolls, binding them to the body during prayer. The researcher thought this one looked a little odd, so he ran it through a CT scan to confirm his suspicions—there was a parchment still inside.

That wasn’t the only piece of parchment he found, either. By the time he had gone through what was left and released his findings, he had found nine “new” Dead Sea Scrolls.

And they had no idea how they were overlooked.

It’s not certain if they were put aside and lost in the shuffle, or if the researchers that had been in charge of them at the time just didn’t know how to open the cases they were stored in.

The newfound scrolls are in fragments, but they’re still incredibly, incredibly valuable. Preserving the ancient texts is no small undertaking, and the process involves scanning them (using 56 different exposures) before mounting and storing them in a carefully controlled vault. The new scrolls will be added to the documents to be studied and preserved.

Nine new discoveries might seem like a lot, but they’re currently working with more than 10,000 pieces of ancient text recovered from the so-called Cave 4. The sheer volume of pieces means it’s pretty easy to understand how some of the phylactery cases got overlooked—an oversight that was probably helped by the political turmoil the scrolls were surrounded by.

On one hand, the Dead Sea Scrolls have already revealed some fascinating glimpses into early religious practices, including original spellings of certain words and settling a long-time debate over just how the scrolls were ordered in ancient rituals. On the other hand, they say they’re not expecting any incredible bombshells to be discovered or long-held truths to be overturned, but the idea that they’re the first people to uncover these handwritten texts in more than 2,000 years is a bombshell enough.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image credit: Effi Schweizer
Times of Israel: Uncovered in Jerusalem, 9 tiny unopened Dead Sea Scrolls
National Geographic: Dead Sea Scrolls Found