Archaeologists have found a cave that once housed Dead Sea scrolls in a cliff in the Judean desert – the first such discovery in over 60 years.
Israel’s Hebrew University said the ancient parchments were missing from the cave, and were probably looted by Bedouin people in the 1950s.
Storage jars, fragments of a scroll wrapping, and a leather tying string were found at the site.
The Dead Sea scrolls date from as early as the 4th Century BC.
The priceless records include more than 800 documents written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, mostly on animal skin and papyrus.
As well as containing the oldest copies of many biblical texts, they also include many secular writings about life in the 1st and 2nd Centuries AD.
The first Dead Sea scrolls were discovered in 1947, reportedly by a young Bedouin shepherd hunting for a lost sheep in Qumran, on the modern-day West Bank.
It is not known who wrote the scrolls, although some scholars have credited a Jewish sect called the Essenes.
The team excavating the latest cave was led by Dr Oren Gutfeld and Ahiad Ovadia from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, with Dr Randall Price and students from Liberty University in Virginia.
The pottery jars and wrappings were found concealed in niches along the cave’s walls, and inside a 4-6m (16-20ft) tunnel at its rear.
“Until now, it was accepted that Dead Sea Scrolls were found only in 11 caves at Qumran, but now there is no doubt that this is the 12th cave,” said Dr Gutfeld.
“Although at 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, the findings indicate beyond any doubt that the cave contained scrolls that were stolen,” he said.
“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.”
The team also found a seal made from carnelian, a semi-precious stone – evidence that prehistoric men once lived in the desert cave.
The Bedouin looting theory arose with the discovery of two iron pickaxe heads from the mid-20th Century that had been left inside the cave tunnel.
“I imagine they came into the tunnel. They found the scroll jars. They took the scrolls,” Dr Gutfeld said. “They even opened the scrolls and left everything around, the textiles, the pottery.”
He said this could be just the first in a series of discoveries, with hundreds of caves yet to be explored.