Excavators Claim to Have Identified New Cave Where Dead Sea Scrolls were Formerly Located

From BBC News:

New Dead Sea Scrolls cave discovered

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.

…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 article is one of many deriving from a press release from the Hebrew University – and it’s ironic to see the Daily Mail offering up the slightly more cautious headline:

Has the 12th Dead Sea Scrolls cave been found? Excavators discover a new site they believe was once home to the ancient religious writings

The Mail frequently introduces sensational yet dubious claims with question-marks, as a distancing device (e.g. from 2014: “Are these the bones of a water demon?”-  a classic QTWTAIN) – but in this instance the paper is being very reasonable, even if just by habit rather than design. The claims reflect the considered opinion of professional archaeologists, but they have not so far been peer-reviewed or formally published.

According to the university press release, the findings don’t just indicate the past presence of scrolls, but actually “prove” they were there. These findings include “a leather strap”, which the archaeologists state was “for binding the scroll”; a cloth, which they assure us “wrapped the scrolls”; and “tendons and pieces of skin connecting fragments”. There were also Second Temple period storage jars that had been placed in niches (or “hidden in niches”, to use the press release’s terminology); a small piece of parchment, found “rolled up in a jug”, which “was being processed for writing” (not sure if this means “is being processed”, to see if there is writing on it); and a 1950s pick-axe, which suggests that the site had been ransacked in modern times. Thus the press release is based on an interpretation of the site, without scientific tests on organic remains, and without any detailed account of the methodology employed by the excavators.

Stories about archaeology that relate to the Bible are often presented sensationally. This is clearly a significant find, but it’s a shame to see the Hebrew University play up to sensationalism rather than urge caution. The cave was explored as part of a project called “Operation Scroll”, which is already dubious: archaeology is not a treasure hunt, and a project focusing on a quest for desired objects rather than the interpretation of a site does not reflect best practice, even though other objects are also being logged – in this instance, Chalcolithic and Neolithic flint blades, arrowheads, and a decorated carnelian stamp seal. (In fact, the name “Operation Scroll” was also used previously, in late 1993 and early 1994, when the Israel Antiquities Authority ordered a rush survey in the wake of the first Oslo Accord.)

The press release adds that the cave is to be known as “Q12”, the letter before the number indicating that no scrolls were found on the site. Otherwise, the the number should go first, as in cave “4Q” – although this convention is not universally applied and I’ve seen plenty of works that write of “Q4” as the site of the most famous discoveries. The advantage of having the number first is that the cave number can then be combined more clearly with a numbered document or fragment.

The involvement of Randall Price and his students is worth special notice: Price is indeed a professional archaeologist, and there is no reason to doubt his formal competence when it comes to digging and identification. However, he is also an evangelist and apologist, and as such his formal expertise can be put into the service of extravagant theories and absurd projects – thus in 2009 he was involved in a ridiculous expedition to look for Noah’s Ark. He is also a prolific author of apocalyptic Christian Zionist tomes and DVDs, with titles such as The Coming Last Days Temple and How the MidEast Conflict is Preparing the World for the End Time.

Price is not the only evangelical archaeologist to engage in this kind of thing – in September, there was a report concerning Steven Collins, director of the Tall el-Hammam Excavation Project in Jordan. Collins apparently told a church audience that he had found a building that may have been used by Moses while he was writing the Book of Deuteronomy – a proposition so ludicrous that it verges on trolling Biblical scholarship.

For some reason, Fox News has decided to report on the exploration of “Q12” with an odd article co-authored by one Jeremiah J. Johnston, “president of Christian Thinkers Society”, and Craig A. Evans, John Bisagno Distinguished Professor of Christian Origins at Houston Baptist University. Their piece purports to explain how the “Incredible new Discovery Proves that the Dead Sea Scrolls belong to Israel”; but the discovery, even if confirmed, is not “incredible”, and the article’s polemical points do not pertain to anything found in the new excavation.