New battle raging over missing Dead Sea Scrolls data

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A new Israeli scandal is brewing over the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The latest controversy concerns the mysterious disappearance of invaluable notes, building records and priceless objects — like 2,000-year-old coins and pottery — excavated from the desert site called Qumran, overlooking the Dead Sea, nearly 50 years ago. They've not been seen since.

Without these ancient items, say scholars, it is impossible to solve the mystery behind the separatist Jewish community that chose to live in the harsh Judean Desert when the Second Temple stood in Jerusalem and when Christianity was being born.

Several top archaeologists maintain it was outrageous that the records and items have failed to be publicly released nearly a half-century after the discovery of the scrolls.

The archaeologists say they are unsure whether it is the result of a conspiracy or incompetence.

Until the materials are made public, scholars attempting to answer the profound questions about Qumran are digging in the dark, said Jodi Magness, an expert on Qumran archaeology from Tufts University in Boston.

"We're missing the most critical information, still," she said.

Magness and others say the missing records would transform current views of the Qumran community and the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves.

The scrolls are a treasure trove of legal and biblical manuscripts and fragments that for the first time has shed light on this period in Jewish history and the origins of Christianity.

They were found in caves in the hills near the Dead Sea, several city avenue blocks from a fortified settlement.

Noted Israeli archaeologist Hanan Eshel, who has done important excavations at Qumran and nearby Jericho, says his ability to make definite conclusions is impeded because of the missing items.

"It's a big problem," he said.

So where are the lost items and unpublished records?

"God knows where," Mazor said. "The Ecole Biblique is responsible."

The Ecole Biblique et Archaeologique Francaise, a century-old Dominican French school of biblical archaeology in East Jerusalem, has held the rights to the materials because they were excavated by a French scholar, Father Ronald de Vaux.

However, archaeological experts say Father de Vaux only published some raw field notes and preliminary reports about his work over the decades — but not the crucial section drawings, elevation records and other documents essential to archaeological analysis.

Since his death, they say, the Ecole has also failed to publish the materials. Worse, many key items like glass, pottery shards, coins and metal used to determine the dates of the settlement and scrolls apparently have vanished.

"I have no idea right now what's happening with the material," Magness said.

Dr. Emil Puech, in charge of the Ecole's Qumran research, could not be reached for comment. But Magen Broshi, an archaeologist and former curator of the Israel Museum, and a seminal figure in the history of the scrolls, defended the institution.

He acknowledged there has been a problem at the Ecole but downplayed its importance.

"There is no conspiracy," he said. "It is mostly poor management."

Despite the questions, Broshi said the materials won't change the view Qumran was home to the Essenes, a community of pious Jews opposed to the religious authorities who controlled the Second Temple.

But Magness said the absence of the Qumran material has provoked "wild" theories about who lived in Qumran and why they were there — the two most nagging questions for scholars since the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947.

Fierce debates about Qumran raged at an international conference of Dead Sea Scrolls scholars in Jerusalem late last month. Magness won loud applause when she raised the missing records issue.

Some scholars argue that Qumran was a military fortress, a villa or manors of well-to-do landlords who benefitted from the flourishing economy following the Roman conquest of the East.

Determining the answer is key to understanding the competing forms of Judaism of the day, the messianic context that set the stage for Jesus and eventually the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E.

"One of the reasons why is it possible for people to say all these outrageous things is because the records aren't there," Magness said. "Some people feel free to make up whatever they want."

She believes the current evidence validates the Essene theory.

Dr. Pierre Bikai, director of the American Center of Oriental Research in Amman, Jordan, called the failure to publish "strange."

"They never had a good policy from the beginning," said Bikai, who is heading a team of international scholars in Jordan trying to restore the famous Petra Scrolls, fifth century texts found in southern Jordan in 1993.

Bikai said his researchers must publish their findings within five years, with a three-year grace period, or they will publish photos of the Petra items.

Making the discoveries public is vital, he added, because "people need to know what's going on."