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An ancient copper scroll told of fabulous treasure in the desert

Posted in Ancient History, Archaeology, Bible, Historical articles, History on Friday, 28 February 2014

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This edited article about the Dead Sea Scrolls first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 574 published on 13 January 1973.

Dead Sea Scrolls,  picture, image, illustration

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls

It was a clear and brilliantly sunny morning in early summer, with the promise of a scorching heat later in the day. The Arab shepherd lad idly watched his sheep and the rocky, barren landscape on one side with the shores of the Dead Sea on the other. His name was Muhammad, his nickname “The Wolf” but today he hardly had the energy to live up to this name. It was 1947, at a place called Qumran; he had been up since dawn and now all he wished to do was look for some shade as the sun rose higher.

The sound of stones being dislodged made him look upwards and he saw that one of the goats which fed with the sheep had strayed up a steep cliff path. His shouts were of no avail and, unwillingly, he rose to his feet and went after it. Unless he could drive the goat back to the plateau there would be real trouble. But the goat simply scampered on, with Muhammad wearily climbing afterwards. Soon he came on an overhanging crag of rock, and decided to use its shade for a brief rest.

As he sat down, his eye was caught by a small, queerly placed hole. Tossing a stone through, he was even more surprised when he heard the sound of breaking pottery. Soon he had cleared the entrance to a long, narrow cave, and inside were several tall, wide-necked jars. At this, Muhammad began to fear, for who would expect such signs of habitation in this wilderness? He wondered about evil spirits and swiftly decided that this was no place for him. Forgetting all about his goat, he dashed back to the camp and told his story.

Next day Muhammad returned, more boldly, with a friend. They squeezed through the entrance hole and took the bowl shaped lids off the jars. But instead of the Aladdin’s treasure they had hoped for, all they found were some evil smelling cloth-covered bundles – and underndeath each cloth was simply a roll of parchment.

Although the shepherd boys may have been disappointed, they were, in fact, looking at some of the most precious manuscripts the world has known. The “Dead Sea Scrolls” as they became known include copies of parts of the Old Testament older by a thousand years than anything we had ever seen. The fact that they were still in such good condition seemed miraculous and it was only the heat and dryness of the Dead Sea Rift Valley, 1300 feet below sea level that had made it possible.

The Scrolls went through many adventures before they finally reached Israel safely, and the National Museum which now houses them. But their discovery had far-reaching effects and the area in which they were found soon became the site of a giant archaeological treasure hunt that is still going on today. One of the many finds in this same area also sparked off a hunt for a treasure as exciting as any pirate’s.

In 1952, in another cave in the rocky cliffs of the Wadi Qumran a Copper Scroll was found. It was brittle with age and seemed almost impossible to handle, but eventually it was unrolled and the task of deciphering it began. One hundred and fifty one items were listed, like the following:

“In a fortress which is in the Vale of Acor, forty cubits under the steps entering to the east; a money chest and its contents, of a weight of seventeen talents.”

“In the sepulchral monument, in the third course of stones; light bars of gold.”

The search for a treasure buried nineteen hundred years ago had begun, but first the history of the Copper Scroll itself had to be unravelled. Archaeologists and Biblical scholars got together and began to piece together the clues which existed.

We now believe that the Scroll belonged to a Jewish monastic sect, who were caught up in the chaos and destruction that followed the revolt against Rome in A.D. 66. With the capture of Jerusalem imminent, it was decided to conceal all the sacred treasures, and the Scroll was drawn up to provide the clues to their whereabouts for any who survived the bitter and blood-thirsty war.

While the treasures were hidden, the last Jewish patriots gathered at the mountain fortress of Masada. There were only a thousand of them, but the fortress seemed almost impregnable and they held out for months against the twenty-five thousand Romans who besieged them. Then a hastily improvised wooden wall caught fire and the Romans waited for dawn, and the last attack. Inside the fortress, the flickering flames lit up a tragic scene. Rather than be taken prisoner, the Jewish survivors killed themselves and next day, when the Romans attacked in full armour, they were met only by solitude and a terrible silence.

The defenders of Masada were as thorough as the scribes who worked on the Copper Scroll. For there are no clear directions as to the whereabouts of the Temple treasure, with its golden basins, candlesticks and other precious vessels. Instead, there are cryptic clues, gently veiled allusions that would perhaps have been easily understood nearly two thousand years ago, but which are still keeping expert scholars busy now.

The clues provided by the Scroll indicate that the treasure is buried in three separate areas; around the Dead Sea, in and around Jerusalem and in the region of Jericho. Underneath the city of Jerusalem are cisterns, tunnels and underground passages in a honeycomb maze through the rock and much of the treasure may have been hidden there. But unless modern treasure seekers can interpret the clues correctly the half-million pounds worth of gold may defy the hunters for centuries more.

These are not the only sites for treasure hunts in Israel. Ashkelon, on the Mediterranean Coast has long attracted fortune hunters. One of the worlds most ancient cities, it was successively fought over, destroyed and rebuilt by the Assyrians, Greeks, Persians and Babylonians. But under the Romans it prospered mightily and, after the Crusades and a final destruction by the Arabs in 1270 the legend about its treasure began to grow.

One person who came across a treasure map to Ashkelon was Lady Hester Stanhope, the adventurous niece of England’s Prime Minister, William Pitt. She organised an expedition there in 1851 and dug the area thoroughly, but without success. In a fury, she broke the one archaeological find her party had discovered, a colossal marble figure, and returned to England empty-handed.

The idea of what kind of treasure is worth having has changed since Lady Hester’s disappointment. Now it is recognised, in Israel as elsewhere, that very often a hoard of gold or coins is less valuable than the ancient collections of everyday things which archaeologists hope to find; as the famous scrolls which so disappointed the Arab shepherds twenty-five years ago. To be able to go back through two thousand years of history has stimulated as many hunters as the other lost fortunes which also attract their treasure seekers.

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