Did Archaeologists Really Discover a New Dead Sea Scroll Cave?

Dead Sea Scroll cave under the microscope


Archaeologists excavating a cave west of the Dead Sea settlement of Qumran found this piece of parchment that had been rolled up in a jug. Could this and other evidence found inside the cave indicate that a new Dead Sea Scroll cave has been discovered? Photo: Casey L. Olson and Oren Gutfeld.

I read with eager anticipation the first news stories out of Israel that a new Dead Sea Scroll cave had been discovered west of Qumran. As one who wrote a dissertation on Qumran and who teaches a Dead Sea Scrolls course at the University of Iowa, I was keen to see how the new discovery would fit into our present knowledge of the scrolls. What was found that made it a “Dead Sea Scroll Cave”? Was it a new copy of a Biblical book? Was it a copy of a known pseudepigraphical work? Or, was it a new, previously unknown sectarian manuscript that sheds light on the late Second Temple Jewish world?
As I read the Hebrew University of Jerusalem press release and various press reports, I quickly discovered the answer: none of the above. Let me explain:
Recently, a Hebrew University press release and multiple news reports announced a discovery made by archaeologists Dr. Oren Gutfeld, Teaching Fellow at the Hebrew University, and Dr. Randall Price, Founder and President of World of the Bible Ministries, Inc. and Distinguished Research Professor and Executive Director of the Center for Judaic Studies at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.1

A Dead Sea Scroll fragment from Qumran Cave 4. Photo: Courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority.

Among the hundreds of caves explored near the Dead Sea settlement of Qumran, only eleven caves have ever produced scrolls or scroll fragments. Gutfeld and Price claim that the cave they excavated should be considered the 12th Dead Sea Scroll cave, despite the fact that Gutfeld confirms, “[A]t the end of the day no scroll was found, and instead we ‘only’ found a piece of parchment rolled up in a jug that was being processed for writing…”
However, Gutfeld claims later in the press release, “[N]ow there is no doubt that this is the 12th cave.” Gutfeld makes this claim because of the discovery inside the cave of pickaxe heads that appear to have been made in the 1950s—which suggest that people had been inside the cave around that time. Gutfeld continues, “[T]he findings indicate beyond any doubt that the cave contained scrolls that were stolen. The findings include the jars in which the scrolls and their covering were hidden, a leather strap for binding the scroll, a cloth that wrapped the scrolls, tendons and pieces of skin connecting fragments, and more.”
But no Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, only a blank piece of parchment.
Thus, Gutfeld speculates that this must be the “12th Dead Sea Scroll Cave,” arguing that Dead Sea Scrolls must have been looted from the cave. Once again, Gutfeld speculates regarding these proposed looters: “I imagine they came into the tunnel. They found the scroll jars. They took the scrolls … They even opened the scrolls and left everything around, the textiles, the pottery” (italics mine).

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I must, in all fairness, concede that Gutfeld’s speculation is entirely plausible. However, we must also acknowledge that it is still speculation—even if well-informed speculation on the part of Prof. Gutfeld—because no Dead Sea Scrolls were actually discovered in the cave! We could similarly speculate that scrolls were once present in several other caves excavated in the past, but that does not make them scroll caves. If there are no Dead Sea Scrolls in the cave, then it is not a scroll cave, even if we think there might have been in the past.

The caves of Qumran. Photo: “[email protected] Sea Scrolls (8246948498)” by Lux Moundi is licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.0.

Let me also state that it is possible that Gutfeld’s team did find scrolls or scroll fragments in the cave, but are not announcing this discovery in an effort to keep looters from surreptitiously stealing any scrolls that still may be in the cave. Withholding public disclosure of a major find is not uncommon on digs in Israel, as is withholding the exact location of the cave. If Gutfeld has discovered actual scrolls in the cave that the team has simply not announced, then this should obviously be considered Cave 12. However, absent the disclosure of the discovery of actual scrolls, we must evaluate the claim of a new Dead Sea Scroll cave on the evidence that has been disclosed, and the disclosed evidence does not warrant a designation of a scroll-producing cave. Gutfeld’s team did not find a new Dead Sea Scroll cave.
Allow me, however, to provide an alternative conclusion that better fits the evidence we have. It is possible to argue that the cave in question was part of a larger parchment production enterprise, and that the jars, leather, textiles and blank parchment discovered in the cave are simply the latest evidence that someone or some group near Qumran engaged in some form of scribal activity and had the means of producing its own parchment. Indeed, the discovery of a blank piece of parchment—placed there either to dry or for storage—fits with previously discovered pieces of archaeological evidence that have been piling up for years, all of which support the theory that scrolls were produced at Qumran.

Visit the Dead Sea Scrolls study page in Bible History Daily for more on this priceless collection of ancient manuscripts.


One of the inkwells discovered at Qumran.

In the excavations of the Qumran ruins in the 1950s, a stylus and multiple inkwells were discovered, suggesting that some sort of writing was taking place at Qumran. In addition, stables and the bony remains of numerous animals buried inside jars were also excavated within the ruins of Qumran. The presence of animals means that Qumran was capable of producing the animal skins needed to manufacture parchment. Large, shallow pools were also uncovered in the western building at Qumran that may have been used to soak the parchment. Lime, which is used in curing parchment, was also found in large quantities at Qumran.2 This initial evidence—along with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in caves surrounding Qumran—led early archaeologists like Roland de Vaux, Gerald Lankester Harding and Eleazar Sukenik to conclude that some Jewish sect (the Essenes, they believed) wrote the scrolls at Qumran.
More recent scientific tests support the theory that Qumran could have been a site of scroll production. In July 2010, a team of Italian scientists from the National Laboratories of the South in Catania, Italy—which is part of Italy’s National Institute for Nuclear Physics—led by Professor Giuseppe Pappalardo, discovered that the ink used to write the Temple Scroll possesses the same unusually high bromine levels as the waters from the Dead Sea, suggesting that the ink used on the Temple Scroll came from water from the Dead Sea and not from some other water source. This evidence indicates that the ink was produced near Qumran and not Jerusalem.
Gutfeld and Price’s recent discovery of curing jars, leather, textiles and a blank piece of parchment is but the latest piece of evidence supporting the theory that Qumran was, in fact, a place of scribal activity, and perhaps even of scribal implement production.
But this cannot be called the discovery of a new Dead Sea Scroll cave. One can certainly understand why archaeologists would be tempted to issue a press release stating as much, especially before any peer-reviewed reports about the excavation are published. The press is far more likely to cover a story claiming “New Dead Sea Scrolls Discovered!”—which is inevitably what people think when they read of the discovery of a “new Dead Sea Scroll cave,” especially in the weeks leading up to Easter—than they are to write a story about the discovery of the most recent piece of evidence supporting the theory that scribal activity took place near Qumran.
But that does not mean this most recent discovery is unimportant. Despite the fact that Gutfeld and Price did not discover a new Dead Sea Scroll or a new Dead Sea Scroll cave, they have provided archaeologists studying Qumran and its relationship to the Dead Sea Scrolls with another piece of solid evidence that someone near Qumran was engaged in activities required for scribal endeavors. And this discovery offers one more piece of evidence that someone or some group living at Qumran was capable of producing the materials needed to produce the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in the caves surrounding Qumran.

robert-cargill-profileRobert R. Cargill is Assistant Professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Iowa and Associate Editor at Biblical Archaeology Review. His research includes study in the Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls, literary criticism of the Bible and the Pseudepigrapha, and the Ancient Near East. Cargill’s recent book is The Cities that Built the Bible (HarperOne, 2016).



1. The archaeological project is a joint expedition carried out by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria (“Judea and Samaria” is the Israel Defense Forces’ name for the West Bank), which is a part of the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT). COGAT “is charged with administering the government’s civilian policy in the territories of Judea and Samaria and the corresponding the civilian policy to the Gaza Strip.”
2. The manufacture of parchment is shown in a beautiful video produced by the BBC.


20 Responses

  1. Deborah K. Vagell-Marks says:

    I enjoyed your words that were written. I was interested in some how showing you a picture of Jesus painted on canvas that was passed down to me in family. The story is A nun smuggled it over on a ship from France many centenaries ago. There was some war going on. The painting looks as though it was cut from a larger painting. I am ill . Their are no relatives to give it to. I need a place that will take it and I live in Ct. The painting is around 12 by 10 inches. It can not be put in any light. Its heart has almost fade-in out. Who would want it?

  2. Raj kumar says:

    Let the Lord give more things of ancient heritage. Scroll caves are one of them

  3. Claude Cohen-Matlofsky says:

    Indeed this cave had been excavated for two days 20 years ago in the mission “operation scrolls”. It was then given the number 53 and the archaeological report was published in Atiqot.
    As a matter of fact and on principle all the scrolls were at one point or another removed (and/or looted) from the caves. Whether in Antiquity or soon after their discovery dates, and this ever since 1947. Therefore in my judgement the material (especially textile and piece of parchment) found in this 12Q cave (or 53 as de Vaux had numbered it when it was first discovered) is sufficient enough to allow scholars to call it a “scroll cave”.
    Claude Cohen-Matlofsky

  4. nonahj says:

    I would like to talk with Robert about when I went to Israel in 1980 with students of a Bible collage in Florida Nonah

  5. Andrea says:

    I am have some questions on the dead sea scrolls. An if u r willing to email me back. I would like that very much.

  6. Axel Berger says:

    Ruth, I think you’re wrong. I can read only so many journals regularly and so am grateful to the yellow press pointing me towards something I might have missed. Of course I never believe the popular headlines, nobody should, but always go for their primary sources. It is the tax paying public that ultimately funds our interests and we have to give something back and keep up their interest. They, not us, are the ones deciding whether it’s worth their while to keep us funded.
    In this we’re similar to footballers and pop stars, the paying public can drop us just as easily as lift us up. We live by their handouts, it’s not too much to ask to keep them entertained in exchange. Funding is a privilege, not a right.

  7. Dr. D. Graves says:

    We had quite a number of pieces of the linen that covered the scrolls as well as ties were found in-situ inside the cave along with the distinctive Qumran pottery. “It is axiomatic that if linen was found in a cave, then this cave must also have contained scrolls.” Mireille Belis, “The Unpublished Textiles from the Qumran Caves,” The Caves of Qumran. Edited by Marcello Fidanzio (Brill 2016): 136.

  8. sarahm58 says:

    I do not think that calling this a “scroll cave ” is over reaching, there is a blank scroll . I had hoped when Lee Berger made the finding of Homo Naledi ‘s an ensemble recognition of scientists , and the information open to all to study , it would have finally taken the contentiousness out of the scientific equation . It has not , as this article shows yet another scientist ,who can’t report on a finding without trying to tear down those who made the finding not through their scientific methods ,but by their rhetoric of their description ,all editors should take note and stand for science, not for contentious rhetoric just designed to create argument . If they can’t bring more to their article than defamation, all they need do is report it those who are interested will still be interested.

  9. Claude Cohen-Matlofsky says:

    I could not agree more with you, Robert ! Indeed I attended the International conference in Lugano about the Qumran caves in February 2014 and I have since presented a paper at the EABS/IOQS annual meeting in Leuven last summer. In my paper I develop the idea of a school of scribes at Qumran. I believe that the scrolls were partially brought and stored from the Jerusalem Temple library on the one hand and on the other hand they were the result of a scribal activity at Qumran.
    Claude Cohen-Matlofsky

  10. Rick C says:

    I hope the new cave is being compared archaeologically with the Qumran caves, as well as the parchment, jar, and associated items. Is there evidence of foot/animal traffic connecting with Qumran? Was the new cave considered to have been in the same ‘wilderness’ , i.e., removed purificatorily far enough from Jerusalem, as Qumran?

  11. Stephen Goranson says:

    Yes, fragments appear on the market. Some sold since 2002 appear to be fake, several scholars have observed, possibly on ancient skin but recently inscribed.

  12. Calvin B. Alexander says:

    8. Robert – “some of the scrolls we already have, that were assumed to have come from other caves, might have actually come from this one.”

    Are there reports of scroll-fragments, with apparant Dead Sea origins, that occasionally appear on the antiquities market?

  13. Robert says:

    This is all a bit of a straw man argument.

    The evidence is that the cave once contained scrolls. It is quite accurate to call it a “Dead Sea scrolls cave”. To object to this is just silly.

    I didn’t see any headlines claim that scrolls had been found, saying a ‘Dead Sea scroll cave has been found’ does not imply that actual scrolls were found as the author of this piece contends.

    They found materials used to make scrolls in a cave. So, they found a cave used for this purpose – a scroll cave.

    The speculation about scrolls being removed in the 1950’s is typical of what archeologists do. Regardless of whether scrolls were removed in the 1950’s or not, the cave undoubtedly once contained scrolls.

    Let me indulge in some speculation and raise the possibility that some of the scrolls we already have, that were assumed to have come from other caves, might have actually come from this one.

  14. Stephen Goranson says:

    I’m away from my papers, but, perhaps, if I remember correctly (correct me if not):
    a) Yes, the inkwells are significant. But is the photo of an Ain Feshkha, not Qumran, inkwell?
    b) The palm-tree “stylus” likely may not be a stylus (but perhaps some sort of a different tool or possibly–long shot?–a yad?). It was sold by Kando and supposedly found, not at the settlement, but in a Cave 11 “scroll jar.” It was described as the only such Qumran item at the Schoyen Collection site. But then another similar but different one was sold to the Texas Southwestern Baptist Seminary.
    c) The proposal about Bromine/Chlorine ratio applied not only to water directly in the Sea/Lake but also its environs.

  15. Randy Aaron says:

    Robert Cargill was not present at the dig site. Any attempt to disclaim an archeological find without first-hand knowledge of exactly what was found should be taken as mere speculation.

  16. David Stacey says:

    Whilst I agree that available evidence suggests that animal skins were likely processed into leather and parchment at Qumran – as I argue in some detail in my book ‘Qumran Revisited’ – I find it unlikely in the extreme that ‘the ink used on the Temple Scroll came from water from the Dead Sea’. To make ink would require only a cup or two of water. If the ink was being made at Qumran itself there were cisterns containing many, many liters of rain water and there was absolutely no need to walk the considerable distance to the Dead Sea to obtain water (unless you can prove that salty water made for better ink!). All the linen cloths in which the scrolls were supposedly wrapped had absorbed salt from the atmosphere in the caves in which they were being stored. This salt was diligently washed out before the cloths were analysed back in the ’50s. Far more likely that the salt was absorbed by the ink after spending 2000 years in a salty atmosphere.
    David Stacey

  17. Calvin B. Alexander says:

    This reminds me of the progressive dialogue on the definition for a planet: What is the definition of a scroll cave?

  18. Robin says:

    Interesting article. I do not know the other side of the story, but now I do at least have this one.

  19. Ruth Bard says:

    Another researcher compromises his scientific integrity to grab a few headlines. This seems to be the new norm in many fields of “science.” A pox on all their houses.

  20. Fred E. Barber says:

    The Dead Sea Scrolls have always been of great interest to me. I was in High School when they were found back in 1948 and we discussed them in a History class.
    Probably today that would not be allowed, the Public School System has become so secular.
    Question: Do you still use BC and AD?

    I really dislike the CE and BCE–a slap in the face to this old Iowan. I was brought up in Iowa schools with BC and AD. We moved away to Kansas at the end of my 9th grade. Very similar shools.

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