JERUSALEM — Israeli researchers Tuesday unveiled dozens of newly discovered Dead Sea Scroll fragments containing biblical texts dating back nearly 2,000 years, adding to the body of artifacts that have shed light on the history of Judaism, early Christian life and ancient humankind.
The parchment fragments, ranging from just a few millimeters to a thumbnail in size, are the first in about 60 years to have been unearthed in archaeological excavations in the Judean Desert. They were found as part of a four-year Israeli national project to prevent further looting of antiquities from the remote caves and crevices of the desert east and southeast of Jerusalem, which straddles the boundary of Israel and the occupied West Bank.
The project turned up many other rare and historic finds, including a large woven basket with a lid that has been dated to approximately 10,500 years ago and may be the oldest such intact basket in the world. The archaeologists also found a 6,000-year-old, partially mummified skeleton of a child buried in the fetal position and wrapped in a cloth.
“The desert team showed exceptional courage, dedication and devotion to purpose, rappelling down to caves located between heaven and earth,” said Israel Hasson, the departing director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, which is the custodian of some 15,000 fragments of the scrolls.
He added in a statement that their work in the caves involved “digging and sifting through them, enduring thick and suffocating dust, and returning with gifts of immeasurable worth for mankind.”
The Dead Sea Scrolls, mostly discovered during the last century, contain the earliest known copies of parts of almost every book of the Hebrew Bible, other than the Book of Esther, written on parchment and papyrus.
Dating from about the third century B.C. to the first century A.D., the biblical and apocryphal texts are widely considered to be among the most significant archaeological discoveries of the 20th century and remain the subject of heated academic debate around the world.
The arid conditions of the Judean Desert provided a unique environment for the natural preservation of artifacts and organic materials that would ordinarily not have withstood the test of time.
The latest fragments come from a scroll that was first discovered in the so-called Horror Cave, south of Ein Gedi in Israeli territory. Written in Greek by two scribes, it dates from the period of the Bar Kokhba revolt, almost 1,900 years ago, when Jewish rebels fled with their families and hid from the Romans in the caves.
The Romans discovered and besieged the refugees in the Horror Cave until they starved to death there. The first archaeologists to arrive in the last century found their skulls and bones placed in baskets in the cavern.
The new fragments contain verses from Zechariah 8:16-17, including part of the name of God written in ancient Hebrew, and verses from Nahum 1:5-6, both from the biblical Book of the Twelve Minor Prophets.
Experts managed to reconstruct 11 lines of text from Zechariah, including the verses, “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.”
Oren Ableman, a member of the Antiquities Authority team who conserved and studied the new fragments, described the artifacts as “another small piece of the puzzle of the past.”
Speaking in the laboratories of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem where the fragments were displayed for reporters Tuesday morning, he said the concept of equal justice for all was laid out in these verses that “are read by people and are meaningful to people to this very day.”
A Bedouin shepherd came across the first of the ancient scrolls in 1947. He found them stored in jars in a cave in Qumran near the northern tip of the Dead Sea. Some were sold to a monastery and others to an antiquities dealer in Bethlehem. Once their authenticity had been established, archaeological expeditions and antiquity robbers followed and emptied the caves of whatever they could find.
But decades later, the Judean Desert still had more secrets to give up.
Amid signs that robbers were still seeking and hawking artifacts from the area, parts of which are difficult to reach and govern, Israeli authorities decided to carry out a methodical, comprehensive survey of the cliffs, gorges and caves beginning in 2017.
“The archaeologists always used to chase after the robbers,” said Amir Ganor, who leads the Antiquities Authority’s theft-prevention unit. “We decided it was perhaps time to get ahead of the robbers.”
Aided by modern tools such as drones that could search every nook and cranny, three teams made up of four people each mapped and scoured about 50 miles of cliff face running the length of the Dead Sea.
Access to some of the caves would have been easier in ancient times. People knew how to navigate the animal paths, Ganor said, and instead of rappelling, they would have used rope ladders for remote caverns. But over 2,000 years, parts of the terrain have collapsed, creating deep chasms.
The West Bank was under Jordanian control from 1948 until Israel captured the area in the 1967 Middle East war. It is now divided between Israeli and partial Palestinian control. But the 1967 boundary did not exist in antiquity, Ganor said, and the archaeologists treated the Judean Desert as one unit for the purposes of the survey.
In the MurabBa’at caves, in what is now the West Bank, the archaeologists turned up a trove of artifacts. That included the basket and a cache of rare coins from the days of the Bar Kokhba revolt, minted with Jewish symbols such as a harp and date palms.
The basket looks not unlike one that could be bought at a home furnishing store today, but it dates to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period. It was found buried in the ground.
“We were very curious to see what was inside when we opened the lid,” said Naama Sukenik, the Antiquities Authority’s curator of organic materials. But it turned out to be empty, save for a bit of sand.
The archaeological survey also revealed arrows and spearheads; scraps of fabric dyed with colorful stripes, fashionable for tunics in Roman times; seeds; olive and date pits; remnants of sandals; and a wooden lice comb similar to one that might be used today, whose fine teeth had captured a small louse.