The discovery of four undisturbed, man-made caves in the chalky hills of Qumran, near where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, has raised hopes of finding more of the ancient manuscripts.
Archaeologists, who announced the year-old discovery Friday, are racing against time before the Qumran area of the West Bank is handed over to Palestinian control. Excavation is set to begin in November."I know we are running out of time," said Hanan Eshel, an archaeologist from Bar Ilan University who discovered the caves. "A lot of things can happen: They may collapse, someone may loot them or maybe the political situation will change."
Palestinians have criticized as plundering hurried Israeli efforts to excavate archaeological sites in areas being turned over to Palestinian rule.
Israel occupied the West Bank and other Arab lands during the 1967 Mideast war, and it signed a U.N. convention in 1954 that forbids excavation and removal of "cultural artifacts" by foreign occupiers.
The caves are not far from where Arab shepherds found the first Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient manuscripts that include poetry, legal texts and the earliest known sections of the Bible.
The scrolls were found in 11 natural and man-made caves between 1947 and 1956, during which time the area was under Jordanian control. Man-made caves yielded the majority of the manuscripts - raising the expectation among archaeologists that the latest caves may contain new treasures.
The newly discovered caves are carved in marl, a crumbly mix of clay, sand and limestone, similar to one of the earlier caves that contained 530 of the 850 Dead Sea Scrolls.
Unfortunately, the scrolls found in the marl cave had not survived well, and archaeologists are still piecing together the 15,000 fragments unearthed there.
"The chances of finding scrolls in good condition are not very high," Eshel conceded.
Eshel believes the caves were inhabited by the Essenes, a Jewish sect that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls and lived in the area between about 150 B.C. and A.D. 50. He said he has located trails leading from the caves to the Essenes settlement at Qumran.