The Copper Scroll Conundrum

It’s Certainly a Treasure Map, but Where Does it Lead?

In 1947 a number of scrolls were discovered in caves along the Dead Sea coast. They have gone down in history as “The Dead Sea Scrolls” and continue to be at the center of worldwide controversy. Why? Because the discovery and especially decipherment of these scrolls opened a radically different point of view on early Christianity and Judaism around the time of Christ. At the time of the discovery, some experts believed that the community that resided near­by, at Qumran, and which some have labeled the Essenes, might have been the religious group out of which John the Baptist and/or Jesus himself emanated. Today, most have abandoned the idea that Jesus was linked to these Essenes, but several are still pondering whether the Baptist might have been—the Qumran community was known, as was the Baptist, to be extremely ascetic.

On a more scholarly level: in all, experts have identified the remains of about 825 to 870 separate scrolls from sev­eral caves near Qumran. Many of the texts have provided new insights. For example: before 1947, the oldest Hebrew texts from the Bible dated to the ninth century; the Dead Sea Scrolls pushed this date radically back, as the commu­nity that lived at Qumran compiled these texts from a few centuries BC to about AD 68. The discovery was on par with finding a dinosaur’s actual carcass rather than having to rely on analysis of its bones.

Originally, the Dead Sea Scrolls were found by local shepherds who took one document from the collection to Bethlehem, in the hope of selling it. At first, they met with no success, but then an interested party was willing to buy it for seven pounds (around $30 today). When the scrolls hit the antiquities market, academics soon learned of them and set out to uncover where the material had originated.

By 1952, the caves in which the Dead Sea Scrolls had been found were under intense excavation from a collective of universities and academic institutions. Then, on March 14, 1952, inside the so-called “Cave 3,” another enigmatic scroll was found made entirely from copper.

Heavily corroded, the ancient metal could not be unrolled, clearly posing a significant challenge for those intent on knowing what was actually written on this curious find—unique amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls. It fell to John Alle­gro of Oxford University to convince the leaders of the archaeological team to permit him to take the scroll to Eng­land. There, it was most carefully sliced into 23 strips by H. Wright Baker of Manchester University. But when Allegro began, in fact, to read the scroll a new mystery was born.

The scroll was 30 cm (one foot) wide and 2.5 meters (eight feet) long. Allegro transcribed it immediately and made a quick English translation. It contained a list of 64 locations written down in twelve columns. Each entry per­tained to a treasure site and there were indications specifying where a large quantity of gold and silver and other pre­cious objects, like jewelry, perfumes, and oils, had been hidden. The nature of the scroll—unlike the other material hidden in the Dead Sea caves—it was realized, was not religious. The Copper Scroll appeared to be a treasure map! The Dead Sea Scrolls—already controversial—had become an even hotter potato!

Ever since its discovery, a number of researchers—from both within and without the academic community—have attempted to use the scroll in support of their own particular theories. Some, like maverick American Bible scholar and archaeologist, Vendyl Jones, believe the treasure includes the lost Ark of the Covenant as well as the lost wealth of the Temple of Solomon. Even though the scroll, itself, does not refer to other scrolls but rather to hidden precious metals, Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas, in their book Second Messiah, which focuses on the Copper Scroll, argue that “at least twenty-four such scrolls were secreted below the Temple.” At no point does the Copper Scroll claim that the treasures are below the Temple, but the possibility cannot be ruled out.

Being a treasure map, the scroll was bound to attract treasure hunters, and it was clear that it would not remain the exclusive bailiwick of academics. Most academics, in fact, have stayed well clear of the Copper Scroll.

The official translation of the text was assigned to Father Józef Milik, the Jordanian Director of Antiquities. But Al­legro grew dissatisfied with the slow pace in which the translation was carried out; there were, after all, only 64 short entries. For a number of years, Allegro wanted to publish his own translation ahead of the official publication, but his superiors in Israel would not allow it. The argument was that such publication would bring a flood of treasure hunt­ers to the Qumran area thus interfering with ongoing excavations. Their fears were not totally misplaced. In Decem­ber 1959 and March 1960, Allegro himself organized two expeditions to Jordan in the hope of finding some of the treasure mentioned in the Copper Scroll. He found nothing.

In 1960, Allegro finally broke with protocol and published The Treasure of the Copper Scroll anyway. His superi­ors, Roland de Vaux and Józef Milik, both denounced the translation as defective. Furthermore, both claimed initially that the inventory was fiction and did not refer to genuine caches of gold and silver. In the years since, that view has been abandoned by most scholars as simply untenable.

In 1962, the official translation was finally released. Along with the translation came a number of other observa­tions: the scroll was probably dated to ca. AD 50-100. The script was identified as being similar to the Mishnaic He­brew dialect but also to contain some Greek. As this was a scroll made from copper, the writing was done with ham­mer and chisel and it is clear from the effort that went into creating it, that it was a very important document—most unlikely to be a work of fiction. Even the choice of copper is considered evidence that its creator(s) wanted a certain longevity for it, which would be impossible with most other available materials.

Clearly intended as a treasure map, it still has the complexities and problems intrinsic to such maps. While no one disputes that there are 64 locations where precious metals and objects are said to be hidden, there is disagreement over how much gold and silver is actually involved. The amount is usually considered to be about of 43 tons of gold and 23 tons of silver. At today’s rate—using only the quantified parts of the treasure (some entries on the list men­tion no weights at all)—that is more than a billion dollars. No wonder several treasure hunters have become obsessed with the Copper Scroll!

How, though, could a small, ascetic community on the Dead Sea have come to possess a treasure that could only have belonged to kings or high priests?

Identifying the source of the treasure has been the principal challenge for most scholars. Some believe it came from the Second Temple of Jerusalem, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. It is in this timeframe that the Qumran community seems to have disappeared. Proximity in time is one method used to draw two apparently unre­lated items together.

John Allegro wrote: “The Copper Scroll and its copy (or copies) were intended to tell the Jewish survivors of the war then raging where this sacred material lay buried, so that if any should be found, it would never be desecrated by profane use. It would also act as a guide to the recovery of the treasure, should it be needed, to carry on the war.”

These scholars therefore argue that the Qumran community hid the treasure just before the temple’s destruction. They note that the Triumphal Arch of Titus in Rome, which celebrates his sacking of Jerusalem, depicts some of the Temple treasure being removed from the Temple; but none of those items are listed on the scroll. The argument therefore is that some of the Temple treasure was left inside the Temple for the Romans to find, but that a large part was hidden; and its locations were entered on this scroll, which was then secreted away in a cave on the Dead Sea so that future generations could recover it—and recover the treasure.

There are a number of variations on this theory, including that by Dr. Norman Golb, who argues that the treas­ures were hidden by Second Temple personnel and that the Qumran community had nothing to do with it; the scroll merely ended up with this community.

A number of expeditions have been mounted to recover the treasures listed in the scroll. But, as with most treas­ure maps, its entries have been anything but easy to read. What to make of “In the cave that is next to the fountain belonging to the House of Hakkoz, dig six cubits. (There are) six bars of gold”? We need to know where the House of Hakkoz is, and we don’t. Some instructions, though, look easier to follow: “In the ruin which is in the valley of Acor, under the steps leading to the East, forty long cubits: a chest of silver and its vessels with a weight of seventeen tal­ents.” Acor is believed to be Achor, a valley near Jericho. Alas, ancient sources are unclear as to the precise location of this valley, whether it is north or south of Jericho. Multiply the above two problems by 32, and any treasure hunter— or academic—is confronted with at least 64 problems to solve.

The conclusion drawn by most of those who have studied the texts is that whomever the intended recipient of this document was, he must have been intimately familiar with the places described, which begs the question as to why the entries were intended to be preserved for a long time. Why did those transcribing the treasure locations not pro­vide readers in a distant future with more complete directions to the sites mentioned?

If the treasure was indeed that of the Jewish Temple, maybe it was meant to be handed down within one or few families—maybe those of the Temple priests? Supporting evidence for this claim is the fact that the Hakkoz family had been involved in the rebuilding of the Temple, and the inclusion of their name on this list definitely pointed to­wards a Temple connection. But that is far from telling the entire story which should, it seems, include how the scroll finally ended up in a cave near the Dead Sea!

The actual contents listed in the Copper Scroll present other serious problems as well. Indeed, if taken literally, the amounts of gold and silver listed in the scroll becomes truly incredible when compared with the total amounts believed smelted up to that time. Only 160 tons of gold were mined across the Old World prior to AD 1, meaning that the Copper Scroll accounted for a fourth of the total refined gold in existence. Sixty-five tons of silver is believed to be the total amount mined by the entire world. The Copper Scroll therefore lists almost a third of the world’s stock. It seems impossible that an obscure ascetic sect could have accumulated all of this on their own.

In one attempt to address this issue, British metallurgist Robert Feather proposed that the units of measurement were Egyptian. The unit of weight given as K is generally assumed to refer to the Biblical Talent, which is approxi­mately 76 lbs. (or 35 kilograms). But the ancient Egyptians developed a system of weights specifically for precious metals, specifically copper, gold and silver, based on the “kite,” or qedet, with a weight of 9 to 10 grams. This would mean that the scrolls’ inventory would add up to 57 lbs. (26 kilograms) of gold and 30 lbs. (14 kilograms of silver)—a far more reasonable, yet still substantial amount of money, about one million dollars of gold and 10,000 dollars of sil­ver.

Why a community at the Dead Sea would use this Egyptian unit, which had been discontinued around 500 BC, poses an initial problem. Feather, however, found references to suggest that the Copper Scroll, though dated between to 150 BC and AD 70, might instead have been a copy of an older document. John Elwolde has noted there are passag­es in the scroll that correspond to early Biblical Hebrew (800-700 BC), therefore within the timeframe of the Egyp­tian kite.

Feather further notes that the use of copper for writing was unknown in Judaea at the time of, or before, the Qumran community. Copper scrolls were, however, used for writing by the ancient Egyptians (even though the prac­tice was far from common). One Egyptian copper scroll was found at Medinet Habu dating from the Roman period; another exists from the lifetime of Ramses III (ca. 1156 BC). Indeed, Egypt was the only known place where copper was used for writing!

Furthermore, the Copper Scroll is made from very pure copper (99.9%), with traces of tin, iron and arsenic— almost identical to the chemical composition of copper as used in Egypt during the Eighteenth Dynasty. Feather is convinced that the copper from the Copper Scroll came from a piece of Egyptian copper, similar to those once in the possession of Ramses III. Somehow—and so far inexplicably—centuries after the ancient Egyptians had abandoned both the measuring system and the use of copper for writing, someone between 150 BC and 70 AD found or recreated a piece of copper, fashioned it into the right format, and began to hammer a listing of treasure locations. Obviously, whoever did so went to great trouble to accomplish this task, which once again underscores the importance of the list in the scroll. Indeed, I would argue that the effort that went into its creation suggests that the treasure could have had a more than material value.

The central question for Copper Scroll scholarship remains: Where to dig? What is the area or region where the treasure was hidden? For John Allegro, there were four likely locations: The Dead Sea itself, of course, because that is where the scrolls were found; Jerusalem, at that time the capital of the Jewish nation and the site of the Temple and, in fact, many of the locations appear to be in and around Jerusalem; Third, Jericho, an ancient and important city for the Jews; Finally, Mount Gerizim, which is a sacred mountain to the Samaritans who regard it, rather than Jerusa­lem’s Temple Mount, as the location chosen by Yahweh for his people. However, in none of these four locations has any such treasure ever been found and it is unlikely that excavation will ever be permitted in most of them. So is the treasure identified in the Copper Scroll one of unknown location, forever lost? Maybe not.

Robert Feather has not only placed the metallurgy of the Copper Scroll within an Egyptian context, but he also believes that the sites mentioned in the Scroll are to be found in Egypt.

Egypt, alas, is an even bigger nation than Israel, meaning that the recovery there could be even more unlikely. Still, Feather has developed a historical scenario in which he has placed the contents of the Copper Scroll— and in which the treasure of the Copper Scroll has already been found!

He looks towards the brief and volatile reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten, who ruled for 17 years in the second half of the fourteenth century BC. He is principally associated with abandoning the worship of the old gods and substituting belief in a new deity, the Aten, thus creating a monotheistic religion. Various scholars, including the father of psychi­atry Sigmund Freud, have focused on Akhenaten; and many have seen parallels between Akhenaten’s monotheistic drive and the origins of the Jewish religion and the request of Moses for “his people,” who indeed worshipped one God, Yahweh, to leave Egypt.

Akhenaten also built a new capital, Akhetaten, or “the Horizon of the Aten.” Today, the ancient capital is buried beneath the sand of several villages, principally Tel el-Amarna, el-Till and el-Hagg Qandil. Since it did not possess the power of the pyramids or the elegance of the other temple complexes, Amarna’s exploration occurred relatively late. The Deutsche Orientgesellschaft expedition, led by Ludwig Borchardt, excavated between 1907 and 1914 discovering the famous bust of Nefertiti which is now on display in the Berlin Museum. But it was after the First World War, in excavations from 1921 to 1936 by the Egypt Exploration Society, that a series of discoveries were made, which in ret­rospect might have been the treasure of which the Copper Scroll speaks.

In 1926, under the leadership of Dr. Henri Frankfort, a jug was found which contained 23 gold bars with nearby silver ingots, rings, and more precious objects. The area where it was found is now known as the “Crock of the Gold Square.” Frankfort found 9 lbs. (four kilograms) of gold in total, which was apparently all ready for smelting. Feather is convinced that what was found, were the ingots indexed on the Copper Scroll.

As to why Feather was the first to highlight this: No one else seems to have drawn the conclusion, since this treas­ure was found before the Copper Scroll itself was found. He adds that villagers of el-Hagg Qandil have found total quantities of gold roughly equivalent to that specified in the Copper Scroll. He argues that, when faced with an Egyp­tian measurement system and the known use of copper during the Eighteenth Dynasty, this cannot be a coincidence.

Martha Bell has summarized the discovery of the “Crock of Gold” as a hoard of “gold and silver ingots and silver scrap, jewelry, and vessels, all of which can reasonably be interpreted as the possessions of a metalsmith. Since, how­ever, the house in which the hoard was found seems to have been in a “slum” and it contained no evidence for indus­trial activity, the material could have been a robber’s loot.”

In short, this description fits perfectly with what we know of the Copper Scroll. What the hoard contains conforms to what is listed in the Scroll. The bizarre circumstances of its location equally map onto what is known and believed about the scroll.

In other words, the mystery of the Copper Scroll may never have been—or was, at least, resolved before it came about. Today, the hoard is on display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. But no treasure hunter is required to go and look at it.

By Philip Coppens

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.