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The Hidden Treasure of the Dead Sea Scrolls

copperscrollThe discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran is arguably the most significant archeology discovery of the 20th century.

What doesn't get much mention are the Copper Scrolls discovered in a cave some distance from casks containing preserved documents. It seems like this "tantalizing evidence of long lost treasure" would have gained more attention from the pop-science media.

The most recent translation is quite tantalizing.

Religious and political complications have always hindered archeological research in the region. Perhaps academics have shyed away from the copper scrolls because of the difficulties in deciphering the locations described? Even when a location is suspected, getting permission to excavate in those places may be well nigh impossible. Lastly, which aspiring young researcher wants to be labeled with the negative stigma of a "treasure hunter" - a moniker sure to hinder future employment, grants, and credibility.

Perhaps one day we'll get a clearer answer of whether these scrolls represent fact or fiction.

Here is an excerpt from Edmund Wilson's Israel and the Dead Sea Scrolls regarding the Copper Scrolls.

Chapter VI

The Copper Scrolls

In March, 1952, two mysterious scrolls of copper were found, on on top of the other, in one of the Dead Sea caves. They were evidently so brittle with oxidation that it was thought undesirable to try to unroll them. But the characters had been incised so deeply that it was possible, in reverse,to make out the outermost layer. Professor K. G. Kuhn of Gottinggen, having studied them, came to the conclusion that they contained instructions for finding the buried treasure of the Essene monastery. Later on, one of these scrolls was sent to the Manchester College of Science and Technology in the hope that it might be possible to devise some method of opening them. This was managed in 1955-56 by Dr. H. Wright Baker, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, who contrived a small circular saw which, cutting between the characters, sliced the scroll into strips that could be laid side by side and read. The second scroll was not sent on, and the pair proved to be two sections of the same document. This was deciphered by Mr. Allegro and turned out to be, indeed, directions for discovering a hidden treasure. These directions were rather crudely written, as if in haste, and it would not have been easy to use a stylus on copper, but it was probably thought safer to leave the message on copper rather than parchment, since the chances of preservation were better. Yet was it really the treasure of the monastery, whose inmates were supposed to have led so austere a life? There was a good deal of money involved, and vessels of gold and silver. These scrolls were found at some distance from fragments of broken jars, which suggests that they might have been deposited separately. Allegro came to believe that the Essenes had nothing to do with these scrolls except, no doubt, to allow them to be hidden in a cave near the monastery, and that the treasure was that of the Temple in Jerusalem, which the priests there had taken the precaution of putting out of the reach of the plundering Roman invaders, just as the Essenes had hidden their library.

... skipping the part that boringly details endless bickering between the academics involved...

In regard to the directions in the copper scrolls, Father Milik adheres firmly to what Allegro calls the "party line", with which other scholars are inclined to disagree: that the treasure is imaginary, and that the scrolls are an attempt to add documentation to an oriental fantasy. He cites a work of "popular literature" written in Egypt in Arabic, The Book of Buried Pearls and Precious Mysteries, which gives directions for locating these and which he says is typical of a genre, but he admits that the author of the Dead Sea directions "has succeeded in creating a strong illusion of the real, thanks to the principles that he has adopted: the elimination of 'historical' details and explanations of the origin of the caches, reduction of the information to the strict minimum of topographical and numerical data." But Milik, like Allegro makes and effort to exactly determine these sites. This is difficult because there are only a few place names - Mount Gerizim, the Vale of Achor - that are recognizable today; about the Tomb of Absalom, the Tomb and Garden of Zadok, and the Valley of Secacah, which is so often mentioned, one can only speculate. The descriptions of the sites may be purposely puzzling, so as to be understood only by initiates. I agree with Allegro that this list is too terse and particularized - in its way, too businesslike - not to indicate genuine treasures. Allegro defends his conviction by reminding us of the three jugs containing five hundred silver coins that were found under the floor of the monastery, and the accusation brought by de Vaux of "eviscerating its soil and walls" refers to Allegro's attempt there to excavate further and find something more - an attempt which, as can easily be understood, very much distressed the archeologist when, on visiting the ruins he had excavated, he discovered that, without his permission, someone else had been tampering with them. Milik tries to insist that the value of the treatise is so enormous as to be incredible, but Allegro replies that we do not know how the talent was then valued. The values assigned in the Old Testament and the later rabbinical literature would indeed give fantastic weights, and if the unjust steward of Matthew was dealing in Old Testament values, "he could have held his own quite comfortable on Wall Street," and the "good and faithful servant" of the same gospel "who speculated so successfully with his five talents would have needed a fair-sized wheelbarrow to bring his master the resultant four hundred weights of silver."

The translations by Allegro and by Milik of the text of the copper scrolls differ considerable from one another, and the former, in a second edition of his work, acknowledges Milik's contribution and defers it to some extent in making revisions of his own. He regrets tha tthe recent controversy should have destroyed a pleasant relationship, which had been based partly on a common enthusiasm for the writings of P. G. Wodehouse. Allegro's self-defense for publishing the text without permission of his colleagues is based on the complaint that I have already noted on the part of several scholars: that de Vaux had taken an unconscionably long time in publishing the other documents. To this the team in Old Jerusalem reply that Allegro, as a member of the team, has violated the ethics of scholarship. He justifies the expedition undertaken on his own initiative on the ground that the official group, since they regarded the treasure as imaginary, were not trying to do anything about it. I was told in Jordanian Jerusalem that the official authorities of Jordan, who had undoubtably given some authorization to Allegro's expedition, had become rather cold, as he reports in his book, when he had failed to find anything of importance - a few coins merely and pieces of pottery.

August 17, 2004 in History | Permalink