In 1947, Bedouin goat herders in the area of the Dead Sea around Qumran, near Jerusalem were poking around a cave overlooking the sea when they stumbled across what was to become one of the most important archeological finds of the century. Called the Dead Sea Scrolls, these various ancient writings provided a never before seen look back in time to between the last three centuries BC and the first century AD, and provided the second-oldest known surviving manuscripts of works later included in the Hebrew Bible canon. They were of extreme archeological value, and in 1952, archeologists began a thorough study of the Qumran caves, finding 11 caves and a total of 20 complete scrolls, and another 16,000 fragments of scrolls. Yet among these one would stand out as particularly mysterious, and has baffled to this day.
On March 14, 1952, a team of French archeologists were examining a place called Cave 3, where 14 Dead Sea scrolls had already been found, when they discovered something out there in the gloom. There, rolled up on a shelf carved into the wall, was a scroll quite unlike any of the others that had been found. While most of the Dead Sea Scrolls had been written on leather, parchment, or papyrus, this scroll was etched upon a sheet of copper, which had over the centuries corroded it considerably, however, it was still intact. Over the course of unfurling the fragile, highly oxidized copper sheet, which would take several years, it was found to be in two sections that had at one time been joined, totaling about 8 feet in length, and as work commenced to unfold it, the scroll would unfurl new mysteries as well.
One of the first anomalies noticed with what was being called The Copper Scroll, other than its anomalous medium, was that it was written with a different form of language than the other scrolls. This one was written, apparently with a hammer and chisel straight into the copper, in a form of Hebrew that was more similar to the Mishnah language, rather than the more traditional literary Hebrew used in all of the other scrolls that had been found so far, as well as featuring occasional two- or three-letter Greek letter groupings. This was all seen as quite anomalous to say the least, but it was just the start. As the scroll was slowly translated, it would turn out that its odd contents were very different from the other scrolls as well. Rather than a literary work like all of the others that had been found, the Copper Scroll was instead a list of what appeared to be the location of numerous hidden treasures, including hordes of gold, silver, and other valuable items stashed away around what is today the State of Israel. In total the list, which seems to be written in the style of an inventory, cites 63 different hordes of treasure estimated as being worth billions of dollars in today’s money, complete with precise, matter-of-fact and detailed descriptions of where they can be found, including details on the area’s topography, how far below the surface the treasure is buried, and the kind and amount of treasure hidden at a given spot. Typical entries read in part:
Forty-two talents lie under the stairs in the salt pit. Sixty-five bars of gold lie on the third terrace in the cave of the old Washers House. Seventy talents of silver are enclosed in wooden vessels that are in the cistern of a burial chamber in Matia’s courtyard. Fifteen cubits from the front of the eastern gates, lies a cistern. The ten talents lie in the canal of the cistern. Six silver bars are located at the sharp edge of the rock which is under the eastern wall in the cistern. The cistern’s entrance is under the large paving stone threshold. Dig down four cubits in the northern corner of the pool that is east of Kohlit. There will be twenty-two talents of silver coins.
Dig down nine cubits into the southern corner of the courtyard. There will be silver and gold vessels given as offerings, bowls, cups, sprinkling basins, libation tubes, and pitchers. All together they will total six hundred nine pieces. Dig down sixteen cubits under the eastern corner to find forty talents of silver. Very near there, under the southern corner of the portico in Zadok’s tomb, beneath the pillars of the covered hall are ten vessels of offering of pine resin, and an offering of senna. Gold coins and consecrated offerings are located under the great closing stone that is by the edge, next to the pillars that are nearby the throne, and toward the tip of the rock to the west of the garden of Zadok. Forty talents of silver are buried in the grave that is under the colonnades.
Note that a “talent” is an ancient measure of weight for about 75 pounds (33 kg), so that is a lot of money. The list goes on and on like this, totaling around 160 tons of gold and silver just sitting out there, and there are even directions given to a duplicate scroll, called the Silver Scroll. Why this is all written on a copper scroll hidden away in a cave and where the treasure actually originally came from are anybody’s guess, but there have been theories. One theory is that the treasure was buried by the Jewish in order to hide it from the Romans when they revolted, that it was a stash hidden by the Jewish military leader Bar Kokhba, who led the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Roman Empire in 132 A.D. Another idea is that it belonged to the First Temple, also known as King Solomon’s Temple, which was destroyed in 586 BC by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, and others still think the treasure belonged to the Second Temple, built between 516 B.C. and 70 A.D., with the scroll being an inventory. No one really knows, and it has been debated and discussed to this day.
With all of that gold and silver out there and these clear instructions on where to find it left behind on this mysterious copper scroll, you might be wondering right about now whether anyone has actually gone out to look for it and the answer is of course they have. One of the more well-known attempts to find the Copper Scroll treasures was carried out in 1962 by the Dead Sea Scroll scholar John Allegro, who thoroughly searched several of the locations cited in the scroll but found nothing. He would come to the conclusion that this was because either the instructions had been intentionally misleading or that, more likely, someone had already found it. Other attempts have similarly come up empty-handed, leading many to believe that the treasure has already been dug up, with everyone from common thieves or looters, to the Romans, to the Knights Templar being suggested as possible culprits. There is also the possibility that it was retrieved by the Jewish when the Romans were gone and used to help them rebuild, or conversely moved to different locations to keep them out of Roman hands, and in some cases it might even be possible that some of the treasure is still out there but just can’t be found due to the obscure references and general lack of context given in some of the instructions to the locations, rendering the directions more or less completely useless. Others believe that perhaps the treasure never even existed at all or that it is even a hoax.
The mystery of the Copper Scroll remains. We don’t know where the treasure is, where it came from, why it was listed on this sheet of copper, or even whether it even ever existed or not. It isn’t even totally agreed upon as to how old the scroll is or who wrote it. People keep trying and failing to find even a single piece of the fabled treasure, and to this day none of it, nor the other Silver Scroll, have been found. It remains an alluring but ultimately frustrating ancient mystery that will perhaps never be solved, leaving us to forever wonder just what it is all about.