Editor’s note: The discovery in 1947 of ancient biblical manuscripts in a rugged cave near the Dead Sea triggered a scholarly detective project that continues to this day. In the early 1950s, Rev. R.B.Y. Scott, a United Church minister and academic, participated in some of the initial excavations, as well as efforts to reclaim fragments that had fallen into the hands of antiquities dealers. Sixty years ago this month, Scott wrote this story about one of the Qumran caves that had yielded a trove of text fragments.
At one moment, the Beirut plane was high over the Jordan valley, with the tiny river below, squirming in torturous meanderings. Then, we were over the gardens and white buildings of modern Jericho, and saw the mound of the ancient town cut open like a melon by the picks of archaeologists. At almost the next moment, the gaunt hills rose to meet us, as the flaps were down and the plane was coming in for a landing. A road barrier with waiting cars swept past the window where the runway crossed the main road from Jerusalem to Nablus and Samaria. Then, I was in the airport’s waiting room with its unexpected lithograph of Alberta’s Lake Louise.
The date was April 1955. After four years, I was returning to Jerusalem to see the fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which had been recovered from the Bedouin finders with a grant from the John Henry Birks Foundation. They were to come to McGill University. Much had happened in the interval, and a good deal has happened since. In 1951, only the first of the Qumran caves had yielded up its treasures. A party of us had scrambled up the steep slope to spot it marked by a whitish pile of debris. On hands and knees, we worked our way into what was little more than a rock fissure. Pieces of pendant sandstone from the roof broke off easily in our hands. Had the cave not been discovered when it was, the roof might soon have collapsed as so many others have done, and the remarkable series of discoveries of ancient Jewish scrolls might never have begun.
The manuscripts from this first cave became known in 1948, about a year after their actual discovery. After many vicissitudes, they have now come to rest in the Israeli section of divided Jerusalem, with the exception of small pieces recovered later from the merchant who had acted as a go-between for the Bedouin. Since that time, no less than ten additional deposits have been found in the vicinity of the first cave, and more have come from three other sites a few miles to the south of the same wilderness. All of this is in the custody of the Jordan Department of Antiquities; until recently, it was being studied in the Jordan sector of Jerusalem but now has been removed for safekeeping to a bank vault in Amman.
McGill University’s contribution had gone to recover part of the immense number of scroll fragments removed from Cave Four by the Bedouin before the authorities got wind of what was going on. Four other institutions followed suit, yet it is by no means sure that all has yet been secured. From this cave alone came the remains of more than four hundred manuscripts in about 15,000 pieces. An international team of eight or nine scholars was assembled at the Palestine Archaeological Museum for the delicate and laborious task of assembling, reading and identifying all this, and the material from the other finds as well.
Needless to say, I lost no time in depositing my bags at the American School and heading for the magnificent museum erected by a Rockefeller grant, just outside the northeast corner of the old walled city. At the end of one of its cool stone corridors was a small green door, locked. Mr. Harding took me in. A very large room was almost filled with trestle tables covered with hundreds of glass plates. At one of them, a man was seated with intense concentration examining something through a magnifying glass. A tall figure in a black cassock moved along the tables, checking. Through an open door at the far end of the room came the sound of voices raised in learned argument. All over the world, scholars were waiting to hear what these colleagues of theirs in the Jerusalem “Scrollery” had been able to decipher.
The task was an immense one. The fragments were brought to the museum in cardboard boxes. Some of them were crumbled, others were stuck together. All were extremely dry and brittle, and had to be handled with delicacy. The material is sheepskin or goatskin, with some examples of the ancient paper made from the pith of a marsh reed known as papyrus. The writing on many was almost illegible until photographed on film sensitive to infrared light. But before this could be done, the pieces had to be softened in a humidifier — but not too much, or they would disintegrate. Then began the work of sorting and matching the fragments by comparing the texture and colour of the material, as well asthe characteristics and peculiarities of the writing. It was a jig-saw puzzle with most of the pieces missing.