Feature Articles – The Copper Scroll Conundrum
Amidst the controversial Dead Sea Scrolls, one enigmatic scroll, made from copper, was found. A treasure map of sorts, what is the true story of “The Copper Scroll”?
by Philip Coppens
In 1947, a number of scrolls were discovered in caves along the Dead Sea coast. They have gone down into history as “The Dead Sea Scrolls” and continue to be at the centre of a 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 same time, some experts believed that the community that resided nearby, at Qumram, and which some have labelled 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, as the Qumram community was known to be extremely ascetic – as was the Baptist. On a more scholarly level: in all, experts have identified the remains of about 825 to 870 separate scrolls from several caves near Qumram. Many of the texts have provided new insights. For example: before 1947, the oldest Hebrew texts from the Bible dated to the 9th century AD; the Dead Sea Scrolls pushed this date radically back, as the community that lived at Qumram compiled these texts from a few centuries BC to ca. 68 AD. It is on par with finding a live dinosaur, rather than having to rely on analysis of 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 (ca. 30 dollars today). When the scrolls hit the antiquities markets, academics became aware of the scrolls, and tried to find out where the material had originated from.
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. And it was inside so-called “Cave 3”, which was discovered on March 14, 1952, that one enigmatic copper scroll was present. Upon discovery, the metal was heavily corroded and could not be unrolled; it obviously posed a challenge for those wanting to know what was 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 take the scroll with him to England. There, it was most carefully sliced into 23 strips by H. Wright Baker of Manchester University. But when Allegro began to read what the scroll contained, a new enigma was born.
Upon its slicing, it was discovered that the scroll was 30 cm (1 foot) wide and 2.5 metres (8 feet) long. Allegro transcribed it immediately, as well as making a quick English translation. It revealed that the Scroll contained a list of 64 locations, written down in twelve columns. Each entry was a treasure site: there were indications where a large quantity of gold and silver and other precious objects, like jewelry, perfumes and oils, had been hidden. This meant that the nature of the Scroll was not religious, unlike the other material hidden in the Dead Sea caves, but that the Copper Scroll appeared to be a treasure map! This made the document even more enigmatic. For the Dead Sea Scroll collection, an already controversial discovery had just become an even hotter potato to handle! Ever since its discovery, a number of authors have used and abused the Scroll to make it work for their theory, both within and outside of the academic community. For example, authors Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas in their book “Second Messiah” focus on the Copper Scroll and use it to argue that “at least twenty-four scrolls were secreted below the Temple”, even though the Scroll does not refer to scrolls but precious metals being hidden. Furthermore, at no point does the Scroll reveal that the treasures are below the Temple – though it is a possibility.
But with the Scroll being a treasure map, it was always bound to attract treasure hunters. This was never going to be the bailiwick of academics alone and, in fact, most academics have stayed well clear of working on the Scroll. The caves of Qumram, where the Copper Scroll was discovered 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 of the Dead Sea Scrolls was carried out; it 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 did not allow him to release his own conclusions. The argument was that such publication would unleash a series of treasure hunters to the area of Qumram, which would interfere with the ongoing excavations. They were not totally incorrect, as in December 1959 and March 1960, Allegro himself organised 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, initially both claimed that the inventory was fiction and did not refer to genuine caches of gold and silver. Since, this opinion has been abandoned by most scholars as it is 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. 50-100 AD. The script was identified as being similar to Mishnaic Hebrew (a Hebrew dialect), but also containing 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 the scroll, that it was a very important document – most unlikely to be a work of fiction. Even the choice of copper as the material on which to enter the information is evidence that its creator(s) wanted a certain longevity connected with the document, which copper offers over other materials.
Whoever made it, made a treasure map. But as with all treasure maps, there appear to be complexities and problems that are innate to such maps. It is clear that there are 64 locations where precious metals and objects are hidden. But there is some discrepancy in reading how much gold and silver is actually mentioned. Traditionally, it is placed in the region of 43 tonnes of gold and 23 tonnes of silver. At today’s rate, this would indicate that there is more than a billion dollars worth of treasure, when using only the quantified parts of the treasure (some entries on the list mention no weights at all). No wonder therefore that several treasure hunters have become obsessed with the Scroll!
This was – and is – a phenomenal amount of gold and silver. How could a small, ascetic community on the Dead Sea have compiled a treasure that was clearly once in the possession of kings or high priests? It was this fact that made it hard to believe that this was a real treasure! Since, the majority of scholars has tried to identify which treasure is mentioned. Some believe that the treasure came from the Second Temple of Jerusalem, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. It is this timeframe in which the Qumram community seems to have disappeared and proximity in time is one method 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 Qumram 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 be found, but a large part was hidden, and its locations were entered on this scroll, which was 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 Qumram community had nothing to do with it; the scroll merely ended up with this community. As we already observed, a number of expeditions have been mounted to recover the treasures listed in the Scroll. But like most treasure maps, the entries were hard 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, in order to be successful in this recovery. Some are apparently easier to identify: “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 64 problems: the total amount of treasures hidden. The conclusion drawn by all those who have studied the texts is that whomever the recipient of this document was meant to be, was intimately familiar with the locations described in which the treasures had been hidden, which begs the question why it appears that the entries were made on a copper scroll, to be preserved for a long period of time, and thus under the assumption that recovery of the treasure might not happen in the immediate future. Why did those entering the treasure locations therefore not provide the future reader with more clues as to the sites mentioned?
If the treasure were 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 it is far from making perfect sense, including as to how the scroll finally ended up in a cave near the Dead Sea! But the contents listed in the Copper Scroll are actually a serious problem. Indeed, if taken literally, the amount of gold and silver listed in the Scroll is extraordinary when we compare it with the amounts ever smelted up to that time by our ancestors! Only 160 tonnes of gold were mined across the Old World up until 1 AD, meaning that the Copper Scroll accounted for a fourth of the total gold in existence. 65 tonnes of silver is the entire stock the entire world had ever mined, and the Copper Scroll therefore lists almost a third of the world’s stock! It is unlikely that an ascetic sect accumulated all of this on their own. In short, it is impossible that the quantities of gold and silver listed, is correct.
In trying 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 ca. 76lb (or 35 kg). But the ancient Egyptians developed a system of weights specifically for precious metals, specifically copper, god 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 26 kilograms (57 lb) of gold and 14 kilograms (30 lb) of silver – a far more reasonable, yet still substantial amount of money, worth ca. 1 million dollar of gold and 10,000 dollar of silver.
However, why a community at the Dead Sea Scroll would use this Egyptian unit, which was also stopped in ca. 500 BC, poses an initial problem. Feather, however, found references to suggest that the Copper Scroll, though dated between to 150 BC and 70 AD, 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 when the Egyptian kite was still used.
Feather further notes that the use of copper for writing was unknown in Judaea at the time of, or before, the Qumram community. However, copper scrolls were used for writing by the ancient Egyptians (even tough it was far from common). One Egyptian copper scrolls was found at Medinet Habu, dating from the Roman period; another one exists from the lifetime of Ramses III (ca. 1156 BC). Indeed, Egypt was in fact 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 18th 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. Whoever did so, went obviously to great trouble to accomplish this task and once again underlines how important the list of sites mentioned in the scroll were. In fact, I would argue that the effort that went into its creation, almost exceeds the value of the precious metals itself, suggesting that the treasure also had a more than material value. The central question of the Copper Scroll 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 it was where the scrolls were found. Jerusalem, for it was the capital of the Jewish nation and the site of the Temple and 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, no such treasure has ever been found and in many, no doubt, not even excavations will ever be allowed. So is the treasure identified of the Copper Scroll one of unknown location, forever lost? Maybe not.
Robert Feather has placed not only the metallurgy of the Copper Scroll within an Egyptian context, but also believes that the sites mentioned in the Scroll are to be found in Egypt.
Alas, Egypt is an even bigger nation than Israel, meaning that the recovery seems to 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!
The site of Amarna, where the treasure of the Copper Scroll was likely located He looks towards the brief and volatile reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten, who ruled for 17 years in the second half of the 14th century BC. He is principally associated with abandoning the worship of the old gods and substituting it with 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, as Moses asked 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 underneath the sand of several villages, principally Tel el-Amarna, el-Till and el-Hagg Qandil. Excavations at Amarna occurred relatively late, as it did not hold the power of the pyramids or the elegance of the other temple complexes. 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 the Copper Scroll speaks of.
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 four kilograms (9 lbs) 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 seems to have drawn this conclusion as the treasure was found before the Copper Scroll was found. He adds that villagers of el-Hagg Qandil have found in total quantities of gold that is roughly identical to the size specified in Copper Scroll. He argues that, when faced with an Egyptian measurement system and the known use of copper during the 18th Dynasty, this cannot be a coincidence. Martha Bell has summarised the discovery of the “Crock of Gold” hoard 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 metal smith. 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 short, 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. And no treasure hunter is required to go and look at it. This article appeared in Atlantis Rising, Issue 85 (January-February 2011).