In a deep ravine beside the ruins of the 2,000-year-old settlement of Qumran, Israeli archaeologists yesterday started excavating three caves in the hope of finding more fragments of the Dead Sea scrolls. It is the first significant dig at the site since 1956 when the last of 11 caves containing ancient biblical and non-biblical documents was discovered by bedouin who saw a bat fly into a crevice in a cliff face.
"I saw there were very many trails," says Hanan Eshel, an archaeologist from the Bar-Ilan university near Tel Aviv, who first realised the significance of the caves in 1993. He points to narrow but distinct paths through the stony marl which makes up the sides of the ravine. "I thought it impossible that nobody had checked what they were, but I brought in a zoologist who said the trails were made by man and not by animals."
The paths lead to the entrances of a dozen caves, three of which are now being excavated. In preliminary digging by the Israeli Antiquities Department a 1st-century Roman coin and some Roman pottery shards were found. Magen Broshi, formerly curator in charge of the Dead Sea scrolls at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, who, together with Dr Eshel, is leading the dig, says that professional archaeologists had previously neglected the site as unpromising.
He says, however, that archaeologists have a poor record in finding caves at Qumran, the home of a Jewish sect, most probably the Essenes, who transcribed or stored the scrolls between about 150BC and AD68 when their centre was destroyed by the Romans. He says that at first archaeologists believed that only caves in the steep rock wall which rises behind Qumran contained scrolls, but in 1952 "bedouin sitting around a camp fire were told by an old man that he had seen a partridge entering a cave. When they looked it contained 15,000 fragments of scrolls."
The bedouin find, now known as Cave Four, is 200 yards from the present excavation on the same narrow plateau on which the Essenes built their communal home overlooking the Dead Sea. Dr Broshi says that the trails are significant because "if you make a trail in the desert it stays there for thousands of years". Dr Eshel says that he and his team will dig for 14 days and then assess what they have discovered before returning to the excavation in February.
The first Dead Sea scrolls were found by a bedouin shepherd boy named Mohammed edh-Dhib in 1947, when he was looking for a straying animal. He saw a hole in a cliff into which he threw a stone which made a strange sound.
When he climbed into the cave the next day he found big terracotta jars with lids containing scrolls wrapped in linen. Another 10 caves containing documents were found over the next nine years in what the American achaeologist WF Albright called "the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times".
The scrolls in the first cavewere stored carefully, but other fragments appear to have been hastily dumped in caves just before Qumran was destroyed by the Romans on their way to besiege Jerusalem. The members of the sect, although they had an elaborate water supply system and communal rooms at Qumran, largely lived in caves themselves.