Parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls are up for sale — in tiny pieces.
Nearly 70 years after the discovery of these renowned manuscripts from the Bayis Sheini period, the Palestinian family that originally sold them to scholars and institutions is now quietly marketing the leftovers — fragments the family says it has kept in a Swiss safe-deposit box all these years.
Most of these scraps are barely the size of postage stamps, and some are blank. But in the last few years, individual collectors and institutions in the U.S. have forked out millions of dollars for a chunk of this archeological treasure. Israel’s government antiquities authority, which holds most of the scrolls, maintains that every piece should be recognized as Israeli cultural property and threatens to seize any more pieces that hit the market.
The world of Holy Land antiquities is rife with theft, deception, and geopolitics, and the Dead Sea Scrolls are no exception.
Their discovery in 1947 in caves near the Dead Sea east of Yerushalayim was one of the greatest archeological events of the 20th century. Scholarly debate over the scrolls’ meaning continues to stir high-profile controversy, and the Jordanian and Palestinian governments have lodged their own claims of ownership.
The scrolls were well preserved in their dark, arid caves, but over the centuries most fell apart into fragments of various sizes.
The antiquities authority says that under Israeli law, all scrolls located abroad were removed illegally and “whoever buys these takes a risk that the State of Israel would sue.”