JERUSALEM — Rare and thrilling archaeological finds, including dozens of fragments of a biblical scroll from the Bar Kokhba period 1,900 years ago, a 6,000-year-old skeleton of a child, and the oldest complete basket in the world, were recently discovered by an Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) team in the Judean Desert during an operation aimed at preventing looting of antiquities in the area.
This was the first time in approximately 60 years that archaeological excavations uncovered fragments of a biblical scroll.
The scroll, which is written in Greek, includes portions of the books of the twelve short prophets, including Zechariah and Nahum.
The Bible fragments were written by two different scribes.
“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 L-rd.”
These verses, written on dozens of parchment fragments, from Zechariah 8:16-17, were discovered in a cave where Jewish refugees hid almost 1,900 years ago.
Another fragment contained verses from Nahum 1:5-6.
When comparing the text in the discovered fragments to the text known from other versions of the text, including the verses known in the Masoretic text, differences shine light on the transmission of the biblical text up until the days of the Bar-Kokhba Revolt in 130-135 CE.
Another exciting aspect about this scroll is that despite most of the text being in Greek, the name of G-d, the Tetragrammaton, appears in ancient Hebrew script, known from the times of the First Temple in Jerusalem.
Avi Cohen, director-general of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, said that the scroll fragments containing biblical texts “directly attest to the Jewish heritage of the region and the inseparable bond between the Jewish cultural activities and our place in this land.”
To date, 80 kilometers (approximately 50 miles) of desert caves have been surveyed. The complex and challenging national-archaeological operation on the cliffs of the Judean Desert since 2017 aims to prevent antiquities looting.
The operation included employing drones and reaching virtually inaccessible caves with the aid of rappelling techniques and mountain-climbing equipment.
Since the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered over 70 years ago, the desert caves have been targeted by antiquities looters.
The climatic conditions inside the caves have enabled the exceptional preservation of scrolls and ancient documents, which are cultural heritage assets of immense importance.
“The newly discovered scroll fragments are a wake-up call to the state,” says Israel Hasson, IAA director, who launched the national operation.
“Resources must be allocated for the completion of this historically important operation. 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 scroll fragments recently discovered were retrieved from the Cave of Horror in the Judean Desert reserve’s Nahal Hever by clinging to ropes between heaven and earth.
The cave, roughly 80 meters (approximately 262 feet) below the cliff top, is flanked by gorges and can only be reached by rappelling precariously down the sheer cliff.
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 from the revolt bearing Jewish symbols such as a harp and a date palm, arrow- and spear-heads, woven fabric, sandals and lice combs.
Another astounding discovery found near the rock wall inside the Cave of Horror was a 6,000-year-old partially mummified skeleton of a child.
“On moving two flat stones, we discovered a shallow pit intentionally dug beneath them, containing a skeleton of a child placed in a fetal position, said Ronit Lupu, a prehistorian with IAA.
“It was covered with a cloth around its head and chest, like a small blanket, with its feet protruding from it. It was obvious that whoever buried the child had wrapped him up and pushed the edges of the cloth beneath him, just as a parent covers his child in a blanket. A small bundle of cloth was clutched in the child’s hands.”
The child’s skeleton and the cloth wrapping were remarkably well preserved. Because of the climatic conditions in the cave, a process of natural mummification had taken place. The skin, tendons and hair were partially preserved.
A preliminary study of a CT scan of the child suggests that this child was six-12 years old.
Another find, currently unparalleled worldwide, is a huge intact basket with a lid that was also exceptionally well preserved due to the high temperatures and extreme aridity of the region.
The basket dates to the pre-Pottery Neolithic period, approximately 10,500 years ago.
This is apparently the oldest basket in the world that has been found completely intact.
The basket had a capacity of 90-100 liters and was apparently used for storage. The basket provides fascinating new data on the storage of products some 1,000 years before the invention of pottery.
The basket is woven from plant material and its method of weaving is unusual. When it was found it was empty, and future research of a small amount of soil remaining inside it will help discover what it was used for and what was placed in it.