Qumran Cave Excavation Project

(Part of Operation Scroll) Prospectus for the 2020 Seasion

Project Lead

Randall Price, Ph.D.


The last confirmed Dead Sea Scroll cave was Cave 11, discovered in 1956 to the north of the Qumran settlement. In response to the 1993 Declaration of Principles in which Israel withdrew from Bethlehem and Jericho allowing the Palestinian Authority (PA) to have sovereignty, the Civil Administration for Judea & Samaria which governed archaeological work in the “Disputed Territories,” especially the “West Bank” (where Qumran is located), sent scores of archeologists to survey the caves both north and south of Qumran in case this area was given to the PA (which was understood as the next withdrawal had the “peace process” operated as expected). The results of this survey was published in 2012 in the journal ‘Atiqot. Based on these published surveys and previous satellite remote data commissioned by Dr. Price and personal surveys conducted by Dr. Price and Yacov Kalman in 2010 and subsequently by Dr. Oren Gutfeld, Cave 53 (the ‘Atiqot survey numbering) was selected for excavation. It proved to be a previously unknown scroll cave and the first discovered south of Qumran and the first confirmed since 1956. Its excavation made international news, was ranked by Archaeology magazine as one of the top 10 discoveries of 2017, and received coverage by National Geographic magazine, being given a place in its cover story “The Bible Hunters” (December 2018). Drs. Price and Gutfeld excavated a second cave near this cave in 2018, again finding significant discoveries including bronze and ceramic vessels and textiles that identified it as a former repository for Dead Sea Scrolls. Other caves were excavated in 2019 with one confirming a scroll cave location first rumored in the 1950’s with the location being lost until rediscovered by our team.

Importance & Urgency of the Work

The importance of the work can be understood as the first excavation of potential scroll caves in the region in the last 60 years. Political problems in the region prevented such activity previously and under the Geneva Convention (since 1967 when Israel occupied the territory) no excavations can be done except for salvage excavations. Because of local looting of caves by Bedouin and the appearance of scroll fragments on the black market, salvage excavation was permitted in the caves to recover the priceless heritage of the Jewish People, as well as biblical period and Jewish historical treasures before they were irretrievably lost to looters. In addition, most of the previous Dead Sea Scroll discoveries (1947-1956) were made by Bedouin and purchased by scholars from the back market without a clear provenance (actual location site) being known or being able to be confirmed and documented (as is only done in excavation). Therefore, the possibility of finding scroll fragments in situ (in the find spot) would add immensely to our knowledge of the history of biblical transmission, of Jewish sectarianism, and of the religious and cultural background of the New Testament. In addition, the understanding of the connection of the caves to the Qumran Community will help resolve decades old academic debates on this association and relationship. As Israel Hasson, the Chairman of the Israel Antiquities Authority stated in response to our discovery of Cave 53: “The important discovery of another scroll cave attests to the fact that a lot of work remains to be done in the Judean Desert – and finds of huge importance are still waiting to be discovered. We are in a race against time, as antiquities thieves steal heritage assets worldwide for financial gain. [we] need to mobilize and allocate the necessary resources in order to launch a historic operation, together with the public, to carry out a systematic excavation of all the caves of the Judean Desert.” A Logos Academic Blog also stated: “The new Dead Sea Scrolls cave is arguably the most important find in biblical archeology of the last 60 years. This discovery is significant because, although no new manuscripts were found, it reignites efforts to find additional sealed caves that may contain untouched manuscripts, both biblical and sectarian.” With the loss of access due to the COVID pandemic (which did not restrict the Bedouin looters!) and the recent political change in the U.S. and a pending political change in Israel and the prospect of new restrictions being imposed on archaeologists in the area, it is imperative that this work be done as soon as possible.

Plan for the January 2022 Excavation Season

The plan for the 2022 excavation season is the excavation of Cave 61 (‘Atiqot survey number) situated high above the Wadi Qumran near to the Qumran Community. This cave is a large cave that received a preliminary excavation (probably by DeVaux in the 1950’s) which was poorly done. The finds included pottery and textiles that indicate habitation in the Hellenistic period (the time in which the Dead Sea Scroll Community began and produced the first scrolls and hid them). Access to conduct this cave was only possible because the Israel government did not fund Operation Scroll as expected and the Israel Antiquities Authority could not do the work. It provided an opportunity for our team given we are able to finance the excavation in time to secure a permit. The estimated budget, including personnel, equipment, analysis of finds, storage, documentation and publication is $100K. This will cover a three-week period of excavation plus the required time after for scholarly analysis and publication (one to two years).

We are seeking an additional $30K for an important research project that connects the scrolls and the site of Qumran based on Dr. Price’s previous excavation on the Qumran Plateau and his discovery of hundreds of animal bones that were the buried remains of an ancient ritual (with ;possible biblical connections). The scientists who extracted ancient DNA from these bones and identified the now extinct breed of goats from which they came, are prepared to extract ancient DNA from some of the Dead Sea Scrolls (written on goat skin) in an attempt to find a genetic correlation that will, for the first time, scientifically prove a connection between the scrolls and the site of Qumran. This study has been waiting for 10 years to be performed. The geneticist (Dr. Gila Kahila Bar-Gal of Hadassah Medical) who will perform it with her team worked previously with scroll DNA and has access to new technology which will improve past results and make possible the comparative scroll and animal bone study. This research also is urgent.

Publication and Recognition of Sponsors

When the excavation report is produced, whether as a preliminary journal article or in final publication form, all sponsors (donors) will be properly acknowledged in print. This is the customary manner of acknowledgment, however, such recognition may also be done publicly in news articles, magazine and/or lectures given by the excavation team in various forums, academic and popular.