On this day: The Dead Sea Scrolls

February 15 1949: Excavations begin at Qumran

By Jennifer Lipman, February 15, 2011

It was the search for a stray goat that prompted one of the most remarkable findings in Jewish history.

Discovered by Bedouin shepherds in 1947, in caves in the Judean desert where they had been buried for 2,000 years, the Dead Sea Scrolls are believed to be the earliest example of biblical Jewish writings.

Dated back to the time of the Second Temple - during the Hasmonean and Herodian dynasties - the around 900 scrolls included apocryphal writings on fragments of parchment and leather. They were written in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic.

Although there is some debate about their origin and still many questions about why they were written, most academics believe they originated the Essenes, a devout Jewish sect that followed an ascetic lifestyle and lived in the area at the time.

The scrolls are available to look at online, while a copy is on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

In 1949 the site was identified by European and US archeologists, and on February 15 1949 a team lead by Roland de Vaux and Gerald Lankester Harding began excavating the area. The excavations continued until 1956.

What the JC said: The origin of the Hebrew Scrolls found in 1947…has been an intriguing puzzle. The various pieces of evidence contradicted each other and could not be fitted into a comprehensive picture. Jars found in the cave were assigned by archaeologists to the Hellenistic period, but this contrasted with the third century Roman pot and lamps, also found in the cave…The nature of the cave itself was not less perplexing: was it a Genizah – a depository of discarded manuscripts, or the hiding place of a library during a war or a religious persecution.

See more from the JC archives here.

Last updated: 10:10am, February 15 2011