Live, from the Dead Sea

[Penn State scholar Daniel Falk got the chance of a lifetime last week, when he, Martin Abegg (emeritus professor from Trinity Western University), and Alison Schofield (from the University of Denver) were invited to join an archaeological expedition to a cave in a high bluff near the Dead Sea. Falk and his colleagues, all experts in the translation and interpretation of scroll texts, were recently chosen to edit a new, 15-volume critical edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls. They are in Israel now to study fragments of scrolls that were found in similar caves decades ago. The chance to perhaps discover more fragments (and play at being Indiana Jones for a few days) was too good to pass up. Here are some of Falk’s updates from the site. All photos courtesy of Daniel Falk.]

[Also see our follow-up post featuring video clips from the expediton.]

May 31. Off today to join the team excavating in the Cave of Skulls in the Judean Desert, with Alison Schofield and Martin Abegg.


The hope of the excavation is to find some more Dead Sea Scrolls, or at least to make sure nothing has been left there. Some small fragments were found recently by looters. The cave is about 80 meters from the top of the cliff, and c. 250 m above the base of the wadi.

View of caves

[To reach the cave, workers climb a steep, crumbly slope with the aid of rappelling gear.]

Schofield on line


[Inside the cave, small trenches are being carefully excavated. The material removed from them is then sifted through wire mesh that lets fine dust and sand through but catches items as small as a child’s tooth.]

Dig This


June 1. Two days volunteering on the excavation at the Cave of Skulls in Wadi Seelim, with Marty Abegg and Alison Schofield. Sifting endless amounts of bat dung and bat bones. Occasional bits of pottery, human bones and teeth, bits of fabric, and a spindle whorl. But mostly bat dung …



June 2. “Vacation for nerds“: perfect quote from Martin Abegg!

June 3. Eating lunch in a cave: dust gets on and in everything. Gotta say, bat dung tastes like shit!

Lunch crop


June 3. With my sifting buddy (and Qumran expert at the Israel Antiquities Authority) Oren Ableman. Falk and Oren We found some human bones and teeth, some of which were clearly of children. Some of the adult teeth were of remarkably good shape: considering they are living in the desert, they must be from young adults. We also came across the “find of the day”: a black spindle whorl. Incredible to think of whole families with women and young children hiding in these caves. The evidence is from two time periods: the time of the Bar Kokhbah revolt (133-135 CE), and from the Chalcolithic period (about 6000 years ago). In both cases, some people were desperate enough to flee to remote and dangerous caves with their whole families: in the one case to escape the war with Rome and the other probably to escape brutal rivalry over scarce resources. It is hard to imagine the terror that would lead to such a desperation flight to a death trap: there is no water or food supply nearby (without a difficult climb), and it would be impossible to take more than enough for a few days. The only hope would be to escape notice. They built fires deep inside the cave, probably to escape notice, but it must have been unbearable for families hiding in there. The cave takes its name from seven skulls from the Bar Kokhbah revolt, which suggests how easy it was to starve the refugees out.

[A welcome sight at the end of a hard day’s work: camp, complete with open-air kitchen, cool water, and reasonably well-padded sleeping bags.]


Cookout copy



Members of the media interested in learning more about Daniel Falk’s work can contact him at or Cherie Winner at

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