For 21 years, Texan Vendyl Jones has been using the Dead Sea Scrolls like a treasure map to search surrounding desert caves for riches of the Jewish Temple buried by the ancient Israelites.
Among the lost artifacts Jones hopes to recover are the "Ashes of the Red Heifer."These, according to the Old Testament (Numbers 19) were derived from burning a rare, solid-red cow and using the ashes for purification rites by the ancient Israelite priests.
Many Orthodox Jews and Christian fundamentalists believe that finding the ashes would be a step toward fulfilling the biblical prophesy of rebuilding the Jewish temple on the Temple Mount, currently the site of the Moslem holy shrines known as the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa.
"The ashes are the future. This will allow the establishment of the third temple," said Jones, 58, a former Southern Baptist minister from Arlington, Tex.
"To me that's worth 10,000 King Tut tombs," he said, referring to the spectacular ancient Egyptian treasure recovered in 1922 at Luxor.
Rabbi Menachem Burstein, one of a small number of rabbis trained to use the ashes if they are recovered, said the ancient relics would be used to purify Jews so they could enter the Temple Mount without defiling it.
"If it's clear the ashes are authentic, it can help us prepare for building the new temple," he said. "For nearly 2,000 years there haven't been any ashes."
However, any attempt to restore a Jewish temple on the site would be certain to stir tensions throughout the Moslem world.
The Romans destroyed the Second Israelite Temple in 70 A.D. A religious ruling has banned Orthodox Jews from visiting the Temple Mount so they would not walk on the site of the Holy of Holies without being purified.
According to the so-called Copper Scroll, the Ashes of the Red Heifer were buried in the first century A.D. along with other temple treasures by the mystical Essenes sect, who hid the Dead Sea Scrolls in the same desert caves to avoid plundering by the advancing Romans.
The Copper Scroll is one of the Dead Sea Scrolls written by the ancient Essenes and discovered in a cave in Qumran in 1952.
Among the Temple treasures it says were buried with the Ashes of the Red Heifer were gold, silver, the vestments of the high priests, the balsam oil used to annoint the Israelite kings and the original Israelite tabernacle built by Moses and Aaron.
Jones believes he has been able to locate the cave where the Temple treasures are buried.
"The scroll says that on the way from Jericho to the biblical town of Secacah, in the Wadi of the Dome, there lies . . . a cave with two openings separated by a large column," said Jones, who studied Judaism at an ultra-Orthodox seminary in Jerusalem. "It says this is the cave where the treasures are buried."
Jones and his son, Wain, began excavating the cave in 1977. Within a few months 30 buckets full of pottery and other artifacts were unearthed.
Subsequent excavations yielded tools and woven mats from the Stone Age, pottery and a 4,000-year-old altar and the remains of a first century clay stove and a basket of peanuts left by the Essenes.