Excavation at Murbaat. (Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Auhority) Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Auhority
Dead Sea scroll

Teams of diggers rappelled down a dangerous mountain cliff to the “Cave of Horror” and found dozens of fragments of a 2,000-year-old biblical scroll and more.

By Yakir Benzion, United With Israel

The Israel Antiquities Authority announced Tuesday that an archaeological team has made one of the most dramatic and challenging recovery operations from an almost inaccessible cave high up a mountain cliff in the Judean desert.

In a four-year operation, teams of archaeologists assisted by students in pre-army programs had to rappel down a mountain cliff to reach the opening of a cave where they discovered fragments of a biblical scroll that dates to the Bar Kokhba revolt, a nearly 6,000-year-old skeleton of a child and the oldest completely preserved basket ever found in the world.

The archaeological operation was also aimed at preventing looting of antiquities in the Judean Desert.

The area is where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, which include the earliest known copies of Biblical-era books. As such, they are considered the most important archaeological discovery of the 20th century.

The scroll fragments, which bear verses from the books of the prophets Zechariah and Nahum and are written in Greek, were retrieved from what is called the “Cave of Horror” in the Judean Desert Reserve’s stream known as Nahal Hever.

Around 1,900 years ago, access to the cave was accomplished by clinging to ropes between heaven and earth, as the cave is a scary 80 meters (250 feet) below the cliff top, is flanked by gorges and can be reached only by rappelling precariously down the sheer cliff.

The modern Judean explorers had the benefit of using up-to-date mountain climbing equipment, emphasizing the extreme dangers faced by ancient Jewish refugees who reached the cave two millennia ago.

Rare Coins and Remains

The historic finds come 60 years after the last discovery of biblical scrolls in archaeological excavations in the area.

In addition to the scroll fragments, the operation uncovered additional extraordinary finds from various periods: a cache of rare coins from the days of Bar-Kokhba, a 6,000 year-old skeleton of a child – likely female, wrapped in a cloth and mummified – and a large complete basket dating back 10,500 years, likely the oldest in the world.

“This is a historic discovery, on an international level at this time. Alongside progress and technology, we are reminded of the rich historical heritage of the Jewish people,” said Culture Ministry director-general Raz Frohlich.

The fragments include verses from Zechariah 8:16–1:“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.”

Additional finds left behind by the Jewish rebels who fled to the caves at the end of the Bar Kokhba Revolt include a cache of coins bearing Jewish symbols such as a harp and a date palm, arrow- and spear-heads, woven fabric, sandals and even lice combs.

Ever since the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered over 70 years ago, the Judean desert caves have been targeted by antiquities looters who risk life and limb in their searches. They frequently damage the caves and destroy historical evidence during the looting.

The climatic conditions inside the caves enable the exceptional preservation of scrolls and ancient documents, which are cultural heritage assets of immense importance.

“The aim of this national initiative is to rescue these rare and important heritage assets from the robbers’ clutches,” said the Israel Antiquities Authority’s director Israel Hasson.

“The newly discovered scroll fragments are a wake-up call to the state. Resources must be allocated for the completion of this historically important operation,” Hasson said. “We must ensure that we recover all the data that has not yet been discovered in the caves, before the robbers do. Some things are beyond value.”

“The desert team [of archeologists] showed exceptional courage, dedication and devotion to purpose, rappelling down to caves located between heaven and earth, digging and sifting through them, enduring thick and suffocating dust, and returning with gifts of immeasurable worth for mankind.”

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