COMMENT: Amos Nur, Geophysics
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Beyond the Dead Sea Scrolls: Ancient artifacts found in Judean Desert
The recent discovery of ancient papyrus scrolls, coins and arrowheads in Israel's Judean Desert represents the first finds related to a Stanford-supported cave survey that could yield even greater treasures, according to Amos Nur, the Wayne Loel Professor of Earth Sciences.
"About 200 caves have been identified -- most are tiny -- but 15 to 30 caves look promising," he said.
The cave survey, launched in 1998, is a collaboration between Stanford's Geophysics Department, the Israel Cave Research Center at Hebrew University and the Land of Israel Studies at Bar-Ilan University. Nur, an Israeli native, raised $60,000 from a private donor two years ago to lease Global Positioning System equipment and rent an airplane to take aerial shots of the region. Stanford's support makes up the bulk of the project's financial base, he said.
Last month's discovery in a small, remote cliff cave in En Gedi nature reserve included artifacts that date from the period of a Jewish rebellion against the Romans in the second century. Three of the 11 coins found are clearly marked with the word "Shimon" -- believed to be a reference to Shimon Bar-Kochba -- the leader of the revolt that took place from A.D. 132 to 135. The cave also contained scraps of cloth, food remains, a metal-tipped staff and 12 wooden arrows, some of which included a distinctive arrowhead that experts say was used by Romans and Bar-Kochba's army.
However, the most exciting finds are two folded papyrus scrolls that have been sent to the Israel Museum to be chemically treated, opened and deciphered, said Amos Frumkin, a senior lecturer at Hebrew University who jointly led the team of archeologists. One of the scrolls is written in Greek, the international language of the period, and Frumkin said the document might contain economic or administrative information belonging to a person who sheltered in the cave hundreds of years ago.
"I think this opens a new era in Judean Desert cave studies," Frumkin said. "Now we know that scrolls and documents are hidden out there; we just need to continue [our] careful search."
Although the scrolls are believed to be less important than the older Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in the region in 1947, Frumkin said they could shed light on the Bar-Kochba revolt, about which relatively little is known. Historians believe that after Romans crushed the revolt, rebels fled to the desert and hid in the remote hillside caves. "This is one of the most significant finds related to this uprising," Nur said.
The survey stems in part from Nur's earlier attempts to explore caves in the region. A specialist in earthquake physics, Nur investigates the temporal and spatial patterns of earthquakes throughout history to find clues useful for earthquake prediction. The most complete record of seismic activity exists in the Holy Land, where major earthquakes have occurred every 200 to 300 years, Nur said. Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls, dating from about 200 B.C., were found buried under rubble. Nur contends that earthquakes, including a devastating one recorded in 31 B.C., may have caused the roofs of caves to collapse on top of the scrolls.
In 1953, Israeli archeologists searching for more Dead Sea Scrolls discovered artifacts in a barely accessible cave in the region. One volunteer on the expedition discovered a skeleton under a boulder in a hard-to-access part of the cave. The volunteer, Baruch Safrai, was only able to reach pieces of the skeleton's robe and belt. Unfortunately, those artifacts were lost and experts later discounted the discovery because Safrai was a volunteer, not a professional archeologist, Nur said.
In 1991, Safrai saw a film on television that Nur produced on campus titled The Walls Came Tumbling Down Earthquakes in the Holy Land. The film hypothesizes that earthquakes -- rather than wars, fires or flash floods -- may have been responsible for many of the sudden, devastating building and wall collapses in the region. After watching the film, Nur said, Safrai contacted him and recounted his discovery of the skeleton. "For 40 years he said he couldn't sleep," Nur said. Based on that conversation, Nur and Hagai Ron, then a visiting professor at Stanford, decided to visit the cave.
In 1996, Stanford organized an expedition with a team from Hebrew University to the site. The group never found the skeleton and found it impossible to excavate the huge, remote cave. However, convinced that additional artifacts remained buried under rubble elsewhere, the scientists decided to search for more accessible caves. The most recent cave findings, publicly announced Nov. 19, mark the first results of the ongoing survey, Nur said. In this case, the team used rappelling equipment to enter the otherwise inaccessible cave.
Nur said the cave survey marks an unusual scientific collaboration between geophysics and archeology. "Archeologists typically don't take geology courses and geologists, of course, don't take archeology courses," he said. "These two disciplines have had a hard time talking to each other and combining their insights. A whole new wave of exploration, in this case [to search] for scrolls, was initiated by an understanding of what earthquakes do."
Frumkin said the archeologists, who are trying to stay a step ahead of looters, need to raise additional funding to continue the excavations. "We have a large part of the Judean Desert still unexplored," he said.
By Lisa Trei