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Among groundbreaking archeological discoveries, first biblical scroll fragments in 60 years found in Israel’s Judean Desert

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Israel Antiquities Authority treasure trove of finds includes 6,000-year-old skeleton of a woman, the oldest basket in the world, biblical scroll fragments dating back to the Bar Kochba Revolt, along with coins from that same time period

By ILANIT CHERNICK

A groundbreaking treasure trove of archeological items found in a cave in the Judean Desert has left archeologists of the Israel Antiquities Authority in awe. 

Among the finds include a 6,000-year-old skeleton of a woman, the oldest basket in the world dating back 10,500 years and for the first time in 60 years, biblical scroll fragments dating back to the Bar Kochba Revolt in 132–136 CE, along with coins from that same time period.

The items were found in what the IAA has called the “Cave of Horror”, located in Nahal Hever.

According to the IAA, the biblical passages that were discovered within are written in Greek and include remnants of the books of the thirteen prophets, including Zechariah and Nahum. 

“The remains of the scroll and the other rare finds were discovered by archaeologists at the Israel Antiquities Authority in a challenging and dramatic national project designed to eradicate the theft of antiquities in the Judean Desert,” it said, adding that it has been leading this project since 2017.

“The desert team showed courage, dedication and exceptional devotion to achieving this goal, they climbed to caves nestled between heaven and earth,” said Israel Antiquities Authority’s director Israel Hasson. “They dug and sifted through the [caves] in conditions of thick and suffocating dust, and returned with valuable gifts that will benefit the understanding of human culture.”

He stressed that everything that can be done, with the help of the country, must be done “to make sure that all the discoveries waiting to be found in the caves are made before robbers do so.” 

“These are things that have no price,” Hasson added.

Trove of coins from the Bar Kochba Revold period found in the Judean Desert’s ‘Cave of Horrors.’ (Photo Credit: Dafna Gazit/IAA)

This complex operation included teams having to reach hard-to-access caves, by rappelling down with climbing equipment. 

The IAA said that the archeological excavations were conducted in selected caves and meticulous surveys were done by specialists including those from the botanical and zoological fields. 

“[These discoveries] are expected to shed new light on the study of the Judean Desert caves,” it said. “Excerpts from the Thirteen Greek Scrolls found during the excavation were written by two different writers with the pieces found being rolled up and clumped into each other.” 

Preservation and research work conducted by Tania Beatler, Dr. Oren Eibelman and Beatrice Riestra of the IAA’s Judean Desert Scrolls Unit allowed for 11 lines of writing to be restored, including a partially preserved Greek translation of verses 16-17 in the book of Zechariah, chapter 8.

Some of the wording on the text fragments found have profound differences and shed light on how biblical texts were relayed during this period.

“A comparison of the preserved text in the newly discovered passages, to the familiar text, reveals quite a few differences, some of them very surprising,” the IAA said. “These differences, indicate the transmission process of the biblical text until the end of the Bar Kochba Revolt period and helps us to understand how the ancient manuscripts were relayed, up until the version that is known today.” 

The IAA also highlighted another exciting detail found in the fragments explaining that “although the scroll was written in Greek, which was the dominant language in the Eastern Roman Empire (similar to today’s English), the explicit name was written in the ancient Hebrew script, which was customary in the days of the First Temple.”

Commenting on these major finds the Director-General of Israel’s Jerusalem and Heritage Ministry, Avi Cohen said that the excerpts from the scrolls, including the biblical text, coins and other finds from the Second Temple period found “are direct and loyal witnesses of Jewish heritage in the area and the inseparable connection to Jerusalem.” 

Two other amazing finds made were the skeleton of a 6,000-year-old girl and the unprecedented discovery of a 10,500-year-old basket believed to be the oldest in the world.

The girl was found under two flat stones and was placed in a fetal position. 

A 6,000-year-old skeleton of a woman found in a cave in the Judean Desert.
(Photo Credit: Clara Amit/IAA.)

“She was covered with a cloth that wrapped around her head and upper body like a small blanket, with her feet sticking out,” the IAA said, pointing out that it is “obvious that the person who buried the girl was the one who wrapped her and also placed the piece of cloth under her.” The IAA said that the girl’s hands were gathered close to her body and her skeleton, as well as the cloth wrapped around her, were remarkably preserved because of the climatic conditions in the cave.

“In fact, a process of natural mummification took place in which the skin, tendons and even hair were partially preserved, despite the passage of time,” the IAA added.

Moving on to the remarkable basket, it was found in one of the Nahal Draga Reserve caves and was even discovered with its lid intact.

Discussing how it remained so exceptionally preserved, the IAA said that this was due to the high temperatures and extreme dryness in the area. 

Chaim Cohen and Naama Sukenik of the Israel Antiquities Authority holding what’s believed to be the oldest basket to be discovered in the world. (Photo Credit: Yaniv Berman/IAA)

“This is the oldest basket in the world to be found completely intact, and therefore its importance is immense,” the IAA explained. “The volume of the basket, which appears to have been used for storage, is 90-100 liters and it provides new and interesting information about the storage methods of the products 1,000 years before the invention of ceramics.” 

Describing the way it was made, the archeologists noted that it was braided from plant material, in a method that is not common in the weaving industry. 

“It was found empty, and only future research of the basket will help us to determine what may have been inside it,” the IAA said.

Concluding, Cohen said that “these findings are not just unique and significant to our own national heritage, but are also important to the cultural heritage of the world.”

*Featured Image: The Biblical Scrolls Fragments discovered in the ‘Cave of Horror’ before conservation in the IAA Lab. (Photo Credit: Shai Halevi/Israel Antiquities Authority)

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