10 of History's Happiest Accidents

Dead Sea Scrolls
Cave IV at Qumran in Israel is one of 11 caves where Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Alistair Duncan/Darling Kindersley/Getty Images

A stray goat led to the accident discovery of one of the most important literary finds in history.

In 1947, two Bedouin shepherds were trailing their flock through the scorched hills of Qumran near the Dead Sea when one man wandered off to chase down a stray. He discovered — and nearly fell into — a deep cave in the hillside. Dropping a stone into the blackness, he heard a pot shatter. Returning with his companion, they carefully lowered themselves into the cave and retrieved several sealed clay pots containing worn rolls of papyrus [source: Dead Sea Scrolls].

Not knowing what they had found, the men sold the blackened scrolls to antiquities dealers in Jerusalem for a few dollars apiece. Eventually, a biblical scholar and historian from the Hebrew University recognized the text on the scrolls as early copies of books from the Hebrew Bible.

When archaeologists and Bedouin explorers returned to the Qumran region, they discovered 10 more caves containing hundreds of full scrolls and fragments known collectively as the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scrolls, written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, include the earliest-known copies of every book in the Hebrew Bible -- some 1,000 years older than other known works. Other scrolls contained previously unknown books and religious manuscripts that shed new light on religious beliefs in the Second Temple Period [source: Dead Sea Scrolls].

The scrolls had been placed in the caves more than 2,000 years ago by a separatist Jewish group called the Essenes who lived and worshipped near the Dead Sea [source: White].