Scientists just found signs of a stolen Dead Sea Scroll

A cave looks like it once held more scrolls, but they're long gone

parchment fragment
The scrap of parchment is blank, but shows signs of having been prepared as a writing surface.Casey L. Olson and Oren Gutfeld

Nearly 1,000 Dead Sea Scrolls—the oldest known biblical manuscripts—were found scattered throughout 11 caves in the Judaean Desert between 1946 and 1956. Now scientists think they've found a 12th cave where scrolls were stored—but the texts themselves seem to have been stolen decades ago.

The evidence that the cave, found near the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea in the West Bank, once contained a precious scroll is compelling: Researchers from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Liberty University in Virginia found storage jars and lids from the Second Temple period (530 BC to 70 CE) that are identical to some of those that stored known Dead Sea Scrolls. They also found blank scraps of parchment that came from the same era, according to their analysis, and pieces of leather the likes of which would have been used to tie scrolls shut.

But the evidence of a scroll heist seems even more certain. Broken jars are one thing, but the pickaxe heads found inside the cave—the kind that would have been used by Bedouin looters in the 40s or 50s, just as the scholarly world became aware of the precious manuscripts—practically scream "looters".

"I imagine they came into the tunnel. They found the scroll jars. They took the scrolls," Oren Gutfeld, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University's Institute of Archaeology and director of the excavation, told the BBC. "They even opened the scrolls and left everything around, the textiles, the pottery."

It's likely that many scraps of Dead Sea Scroll, which contain first-person historical accounts, biblical text, and priceless information about the customs of the people who once lived in these mysterious caves, were plundered and sold. Smithsonian Magazine reports that a fingernail-sized fragment of text could sell for $1 million today.

broken pottery
The shards of pottery point to a 20th century pillaging.Casey L. Olson and Oren Gutfeld

"Thank God they took only the scrolls," he told The Washington Post. "They left behind all the evidence that the scrolls were there."

The finding actually calls the origin of the currently held scrolls into question. The very first scrolls were only brought to academic attention after Bedouin shepherds sold them. They reported finding them in some of the 11 caves that would eventually be excavated by archaeologists, but the existence of a 12th cave opens up the possibility that some of the texts came from other, yet unknown locales.

There could be dozens more caves holding scrolls—or at least holding evidence that they were once stored there. Gutfeld and his colleagues will continue to search the region as part of an initiative called "Operation Scroll".

For now, you can peruse the scrolls found half a century ago from the comfort of your own home. In 2011, Google (in partnership with the Israel Museum in Jerusalem) digitized high-resolution photos of some of these intriguing texts.