Treasure in the desert

As the Dead Sea scroll detailing a huge hidden fortune is finally restored, scholars ask who buried the loot - and where is it now?
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The secrets of the most mysterious of the Dead Sea scrolls are at last being unravelled. For the first time scholars are able to read almost the whole of the extraordinary treasure guide unearthed half a century ago in a cave above the Dead Sea.

It is different from the other scrolls, because it is written on an 8ft- long thin sheet of copper and lists more than 60 hiding places for a huge treasure. It gives details of where silver, gold, goblets, vestments and incense were buried 2,000 years ago in conduits, caves and tombs.

Some scholars have always found the dry style of Copper Scroll, as it came to be called after it was discovered in 1952, convincing evidence of its authenticity. For instance, one item reads: "In the tomb which is in the torrent of Ha-Kippa, on the way from Jericho to Sokokah, dig seven cubits: 32 talents." The fact that the scroll was written on an expensive material designed to last seems evidence that somebody was determined the guide to the treasure should survive.

Others were always more doubtful. The quantity of treasure seemed too great. First estimates suggested that in the triangle between Qumran, where the scrolls were written, Jericho and Jerusalem, 65 tons of silver and 26 tons of gold were buried. Some was in the form of money, but there were also 608 pitchers filled with silver, 619 gold and silver vessels and more than 65 bars of gold. It seemed incredible that such wealth should have been in the hands of the Essenes, the ascetic Jewish sect based at Qumran, who are believed to have written the scrolls.

Increasingly corroded since it was found in the cave at Qumran, the Copper Scroll has been painstakingly restored in a French laboratory over the past four years. For the first time an almost complete text is available.

Father Emile Puech, who has just finished a new translation of the scroll at the Ecole Biblique, an institute for biblical study in Jerusalem, believes the scroll is genuine. He says there were 61 hiding places, mostly in an area north and east of the Dead Sea, in Jericho and close to Jerusalem but not within its walls. He believes the treasure was probably hidden in AD68 as the Roman legions advanced on Qumran on their way to besiege Jerusalem.

He has no doubt that the treasure belongs to the Essenes. The Judean desert and the cliff face which rises above the Dead Sea are riddled with caves. Why should anybody apart from the Essenes have chosen this particular area as a hiding place? He points to one of the items in the scroll which speaks of books being hidden as well, suggesting an Essene link. It reads: "In the water conduit which is on the road to the east of the house of treasure, which is to east of (the house of) Ahiyah: Tithe vessels and books. Do not damage them."

He dismisses the idea that the silver and gold was really the treasure of the Temple in Jerusalem, concealed as the Romans advanced. He points out that the Essenes, who established their community at Qumran in about 150-140BC, rejected the authority of the priests of the Temple. He argues that they levied their own tax on members, believing themselves to be the representatives of the true Israel with their own priests and hierarchy. Small but dedicated sects throughout history are known for their ability to accumulate large funds. Furthermore there is uncertainty over what exactly the author of the scroll meant by a talent. He may have been speaking of either value or weight and the real sum involved may be smaller than originally assumed.

When the Copper Scroll was first discovered it was too corroded and brittle to be unfurled. It was taken to the Manchester College of Science and Technology in 1956 and cut into 23 strips with a small circular saw by Professor H Wright Baker, in a process whose crudity still causes controversy. No sooner was the first, not very accurate, translation made by John Allegro than speculation mounted about the whereabouts of the treasure. Archaeologists' attempts to avoid a potentially destructive treasure hunt only partly succeeded. Allegro himself persuaded the Jordanian government to support a search when it still controlled the country around Qumran before the 1967 war. This escapade partly discredited the idea that a real treasure was ever buried. But even if it was there - and the majority of scrolls scholars now accept the hidden wealth was real - it would be very difficult to find.

Father Puech says that what at first sight look like meticulous directions to the treasure are a little deceptive. In his translation one reads: "In the courtyard (of the tomb) of Sadoq, at its four corners: gold, tithe vessels, with the reckoning beside them." But in few cases is the location of a 2,000-year-old tomb, pool or water conduit still known. Even at the time extra local knowledge would have been necessary. Puech says the scroll "is a precis of information. Only people inside the Essene community would have understood exactly where to look."

He points also to seven curious abbreviations in Greek on the scroll such as "K" and "DI". He believes these refer to people in charge of the whereabouts of the treasure in each locality. Whoever wrote the scroll certainly took immense precautions to ensure that knowledge of the hiding places should be preserved. The final item on the scroll reads: "In the underground chamber which was built to the north of Kohlit, with its entrance to the north and tombs at its opening, a duplicate of this document and its measurement and the inventory of everything, item by item." Father Puech says: "Not all the Essenes died in the destruction of Jerusalem. Maybe some survived and took the treasure."

Not everybody accepts that the treasure was real, or that if it was it belonged to the Essenes. Dr George Brooke, of Manchester University, believes the only place a treasure of this size - a quarter of the world's gold supply at the time - could have come from was the Temple in Jerusalem. He says: "Somebody might have brought the scroll from Jerusalem to a sympathiser among the Essenes, who hid it in the cave."

Ever since it was discovered the Copper Scroll has provoked disputes. Josef Milik, its first official translator, said dismissively: "The bronze catalogue merely describes imaginary treasure deriving from the Jewish folklore of the Roman epoch." But John Allegro, who had had the Copper Scroll cut open in Manchester, became fascinated by what he read. Although he had promised to respect the publication rights of Milik he produced his own bootleg translation. On no very strong evidence he decided the Copper Scroll was "an inventory of sacred treasure hidden away by the Zealots" after driving out the Essenes from Qumran. In 1960 and 1961 Allegro enraged former colleagues by launching a number of highly publicised but abortive archaeological expeditions.

The Copper Scroll was also peculiar in that it was the one item from all the scrolls found near Qumran to remain in Jordanian hands after Israel captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967. The 23 strips into which the scroll had been cut sat in velvet-lined containers in Amman. By the 1980s there were signs of deterioration. The edges of strips were receding, in some cases by as much as an inch. Other fragments were lost when the scroll was originally chopped up in Manchester.

TO PRESERVE the scroll Jordan handed it over to the French state electricity company, Electricite de France, in 1993, to undo the damage done by previous restoration efforts, restore what remained and produce a copy in copper. Father Puech was put in charge of reconstructing the text on behalf of the Ecole Biblique and the French National Centre for Scientific Research. In March this year it was handed over to Queen Noor of Jordan and returned to Amman.

Nagging doubts remain. It seems unlikely somebody would have taken a hammer and chisel and carefully cut 3,000 Hebrew characters into an 8ft piece of metal if the treasure trove described was imaginary. But it is possible. All forgers know that an accumulation of detail gives a spurious impression of authenticity.

More likely, however, is the thesis that Copper Scroll is world's greatest treasure guide, a carefully considered attempt by the Essenes to preserve their funds from the advancing Roman legions which were to destroy Jerusalem. Josephus says all Essenes swore to preserve the secrets of the community. He adds that they were steadfast under torture although "the Romans racked and twisted, burnt and broke them". The fact that no gold or silver has been found may simply show that the elaborate precautions taken by the Essenes were a success.

The Copper Scroll will be on display at the Manchester Museum from 15 September to 3 December.