The Goatherd and the Cave
Cave 4, one of twelve discovered so far, where manuscripts dating back two thousand years have been found. Photo by Grauesel, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Goatherd and the Cave

How the Dead Sea Scrolls Were Found
Aleksandra Woźniak-Marchewka
time 12 minutes

The story of the Dead Sea Scrolls is full of intrigue: an extraordinary desert discovery, a mysterious cult, wars both ancient and modern, a treasure hunt, and an international affair.

Between Jerusalem and the west coast of the Dead Sea, amid the rocky mountains, scorched by the sun of the Judean Desert, over the waters of the world’s saltiest lake, there are few signs of life. Any fish that is swept here by the current of the Jordan River swiftly dies. Once it was called the Sea of Sodom, for it was believed that in its depths lay the ruins of a city leveled by God. Land animals somehow get by. Arabian leopards lived here long ago; now all you see is the occasional Nubian ibex, viper, or a hopping sand partridge. Over the wasteland fly birds with various names: fan-tailed ravens, Arabian babblers, barn swallows. Humans did not survive easily here, and perhaps that is why the local caves were favored by old hermits. Today the only inhabitants are nomadic Bedouin tribes. It turns out, however, that this has not always been the case. The ruins of an ancient settlement were discovered in the 19th century on a marl terrace, a mile or so from the Dead Sea shore. So far scientists have no definitive answer as to who lived there.

Through Fences and Over the Ocean

One day in 1947, three shepherds from the Ta’amire tribe, Muhammad az-Zib (or edh-Dhib), Jum’a Muhammad, and Khalil Musa, were wandering just north of these ruins. They had lost sight of one of their goats. Muhammad noticed it had run into a cave in the mountainside, so he dashed over, grabbed a rock, and threw it inside to scare the animal. Instead of a frightened bleat, the boy heard the clatter of a clay pot smashing. As he entered the cave, the shapes of ceramic jugs danced before his eyes in the gloom. Some of the vessels were destroyed, others sealed and untouched.


You’ve reached your free article’s limit this month. You can get unlimited access to all our articles and audio content with our digital subscription. If you have an active subscription, please log in.


Also read:

Tripping Like Ancient Greeks
Illustration by Karyna Piwowarska
Good Mood

Tripping Like Ancient Greeks

Shamanism in Classical Antiquity
Tomasz Wiśniewski

Pythagoras, who formulated the famous mathematical equation, practised fortune-telling, Epimenides of Crete was a soothsayer, while the philosopher Empedocles could supposedly resurrect the dead. Does this mean that ancient Greece had its own shamans?

The term ‘shaman’ comes from the Tungusic word samān, in turn derived from the verb sa (‘to know’). Strictly speaking, shamanism is a religion of the Siberian peoples. Its ‘discovery’ and description by Western scholars (including the exceptional Polish researcher Maria Czaplicka, who is little known in her own country) led to the reinterpretation of many cultural texts and phenomena, beginning with prehistoric cave paintings and ending with European ‘paganism’ or folklore.

Continue reading