How the Dead Sea Scrolls Work

Discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls
The cave area near the ancient Qumran settlement where the first Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947. DeAgostini/Getty Images

For nearly 2,000 years the scrolls sat in the dark, in the dry depths of those remote caves in the Judean Desert. Outside in the sun, little changed. Down near the shores of the Dead Sea, small communities and ports thrived or fell into disuse. In the distance, the Roman Empire rose and fell, and the ancient city of Byzantium had its day. Christianity grew from an obscure mystery cult into a vast cultural force, and the armies of Europe conquered Jerusalem, lost it, reconquered it and lost it again, while Islam spread from Arabia to all points of the compass.

Across the world, history continued to unfold, but a time-lapse film of the landscape outside those caves would have recorded little beyond some scrubby bushes and grasses growing and dying and the occasional goat wandering by.

Roughly 1,877 years after the scrolls were hidden, it was, in fact, one of these wandering goats that caused their rediscovery. Two Bedouin shepherds were hunting for one of their missing animals near an outcrop overlooking the Dead Sea when they happened upon an opening in the rock face. The shepherds threw a couple of stones in to make sure nothing dangerous lurked inside. To their astonishment, they heard shattering crockery. When they crawled in to investigate, they discovered they'd broken an ancient clay pot, revealing scraps of crumbling leather covered in strange writing. And there were more pots, containing still more scrolls.

The shepherds, Jum'a and Muhammed ed-Dib, bundled the scrolls up and went back to their herd. In the following weeks, they toted the scrolls around, showing them to friends and family and finally made the decision to head for Bethlehem, the nearest commercial center, to see if there was any money to be made. There, they connected with an antiquities dealer named Feidi Salahi. Salahi wasn't sure what he was looking at — the script was unfamiliar — but he had a hunch the scrolls were important. He communicated with an Armenian dealer who, in turn, got in touch with a friend of his, a professor of archaeology named Eleazar Lipa Sukenik.

Sukenik was intrigued, but he had a problem. In 1947, the territory now known as Israel was in turmoil. The city of Jerusalem itself was divided into zones with checkpoints and wire fences. Sukenik went to meet his Armenian friend but neither of them had the right paperwork to cross the necessary checkpoint, so they had to talk through the fence. The Armenian pressed an ancient scrap of script-covered leather to the wire and Sukenik peered at it — it looked strangely familiar, but even he, fluent in Hebrew, couldn't read it. Perhaps it was a forgery, or maybe it was older than any text he'd yet seen. Sukenik was beside himself with excitement — this could be a major find. But to see more scrolls, he had to get himself to Bethlehem, a town smack in the middle of the Palestinian territory. For a Jew to travel there in 1948 was to risk his life [source: Yadin].