Science: The secrets of the Scrolls

Do mysterious parchments, dating from the time of Christ, reveal the location of hidden treasure?
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The Independent Culture
THE DEAD Sea Scrolls - mysterious parchments dating from the time of Christ - have stirred the public imagination for 50 years. Among them is the Copper Scroll, a heavily oxidised metal roll engraved in Hebrew, with several coded elements in Greek. The scroll appears to be a list of buried treasure of unimaginable quantities. So vast are the amounts that many scholars have dismissed the list as fanciful fiction. However, my research suggests that the amounts were overestimated from a misreading of the weights used at the time. It has led me to believe that the buried treasure was indeed real, and could still be found today.

The story began in March 1952 when a French archaeologist, Henri de Contenson, discovered two pieces of a heavily oxidised copper scroll buried in a cave overlooking Qumran, on the north-west edge of the Dead Sea. He was working under the auspices of the Ecole Biblique, a Catholic seminary located in East Jerusalem, which had controlled most of the related research that had gone on since the finding of the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947.

No one knew how to unravel the fragile material of the Copper Scroll, although it was clear from mirror-image impressions on the outside that it contained ancient Hebrew writing. Various scientific centres around the world were consulted, but none felt confident enough to undertake the task until John Allegro, Britain's representative on the East Jerusalem study team, suggested that Manchester Technical College had the necessary expertise. Subsequently, Professor Wright Baker coated the pieces of the scroll in Araldite, heated them to obtain some rigidity, and sliced them into 23 cup-shaped pieces using a fine saw just 1/4,000th of an inch thick.

Allegro must have been the first person to translate the text into English, but because of the sensitive nature of its contents he was prevented by his colleagues at the Ecole Biblique from disclosing any details. Eventually, in 1960, frustrated and angry at the restrictions imposed on him, he published a book entitled The Treasure of the Copper Scroll. The official reason for stopping such publicity was that the Ecole Biblique did not want treasure seekers disturbing the archaeological sites at Qumran. However, critics suspect that the real reason was that Catholic officials had concluded that the Qumran-Essenes, the people who wrote and possessed the Dead Sea Scrolls around the time of Christ, were a frugal monastic community who would not have had anything to do with any treasure.

If the translation was correct, the amounts of treasure listed in the Copper Scroll were vast. They totalled 65 tonnes of silver and 25 tonnes of gold, because the weight term mentioned in the scroll is taken as a biblical talent, equivalent to about 76lb (35kg). At the time of the finding of the Copper Scroll the area was part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and the scroll is normally kept in the Archaeological Museum at the Jordanian capital, Amman.

However, in 1997 it was brought to Manchester Museum, where I first saw it and became intrigued by its mysteries, given my background as a chartered engineer and professional metallurgist. I soon concluded that the current translations of the Copper Scroll were wrong and that the conventionally accepted weight terms were absurdly high. My conclusion was reinforced by the fact that although the scroll gives quite precise instructions on where to dig for the treasures, none of them had yet been found, up to that date. If the original translation of the Copper Scroll were right, it would mean that the 25 tonnes of gold mentioned would have amounted to something like 25 per cent of all the gold ever mined throughout the world at that time. The total amount of silver - 65 tonnes - would have amounted to all the silver ever mined in the world 2,000 years ago. Something is evidently amiss, therefore, with the readings of the scroll's measures of weights. Anyone who has worked in an assay laboratory measuring precious metals, as I have, knows that kilograms or similar units are not the currency for weighing gold and silver. When the Copper Scroll mentions gold earrings and rings, it must be talking in terms of ounces or grams, not kilograms. Something was drastically wrong with all the current translations of the Copper Scroll, published, for example, by Professor Geza Vermes of Oxford University, Al Wolters of Redeemer College, Canada, and Professor Garcia Martinez of the Qumran Instituut, the Netherlands.

When I started looking at ancient papyri and parchment texts from the Middle East, it became apparent to me that the numbers placed before the units of measurement were not Canaanite but Egyptian, and therefore dated back to a period at least 500 years before the time the Copper Scroll was apparently engraved. The ancient Egyptians used a weight value known as a "deben", about 93 grams, but when weighing precious metals they used a specific unit known as a "kite". This measure, of about 10 grams, was used to weigh gold and silver.

The more I studied the contents of the Copper Scroll and some of the Dead Sea Scrolls in general, the more I became convinced that the entire body of work had heavy Egyptian overtones. None of the treasures of the Copper Scroll had been discovered because everyone had been looking for them in Israel, mainly in an area known as Judaea from 200BC to AD68.

Some of the treasures, I surmised, had been hidden in Egypt a thousand years before the time of the Qumran-Essenes. A more detailed study indicated that the place in Egypt referred to in the Copper Scroll was El Amarna, on the northern part of the Nile, and the period was about 1350BC, when the pharaoh Akhenaten ruled.

Using an Egyptian "kite" for the weight term, I cross-checked some of the weights of gold and jewellery described in the Copper Scroll with the known weights of similar items (such as rings of Nefertiti and gold ingots) dating from 1350BC and currently residing in museums around the world, including the City of Liverpool Museum and the Royal Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. In three instances the correlations were so precise as to leave little doubt that they are the items referred to in the Copper Scroll.They included, for instance, two gold signet rings in the Liverpool museum.

George Brooke, Rylands professor at the University of Manchester and co-director of the Manchester-Sheffield Centre for Dead Sea Scrolls Research, describes the idea in the foreword to my book on the subject as "a very intriguing interpretation of the troublesome signs for weights". He continues: "The results may not convince everybody, but as far as understanding the system of weights and measures in use by the authors of the scroll is concerned, they are a valuable contribution to the ongoing, weighty debate."

Professor Brooke is naturally cautious about endorsing a theory which ostensibly connects the Qumran-Essenes, the authors of many of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and an Egyptian pharaoh living more than 1,000 years earlier. He prefers the idea that the cross-fertilisation between the Essenes' special form of Judaism and Egypt might have taken place some time after Ezekiel in the sixth century BC, or maybe through contact with the Theraputae, an Israelite-style sect who lived in Egypt around the turn of that millennium.

Whatever the historical influences on the people who wrote the Copper Scroll, this 2,000-year-old enigma continues to raise more questions than answers. As Brooke asks: "Was the treasure real? Has some of it been found? Is there still some located in the places suggested?" I believe there is good evidence to suggest "yes" to these questions.

`The Copper Scroll Decoded' (Thorsons/ HarperCollins, pounds 16.99)

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