Ancient history

What Are the Copper Scrolls?

These ancient writings engraved on copper have a mysterious history.

The Copper Scrolls were discovered as part of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran. As the name implies, these scrolls were written on copper (rather than animal skin or papyrus). Curiously, the Copper Scrolls detail the supposed location of hidden Jerusalem temple treasures—and they’ve even been used as a treasure map by fortune hunters. In this interview, the noted scholar George J. Brooke explains more.

What is the Copper Scroll?

The Copper Scroll is made from three sheets of 99% pure copper (30 x 83 cms; 29 x 72 cms; 29 x 79 cms) that were originally riveted together to form a single scroll. Each sheet contains four columns of engraved script.

When put in the cave in antiquity the scroll was in two parts, one roll containing two sheets and the other just one. The two rolls were discovered by archaeologists in Cave 3 in the foothills near Qumran on the north-west shore of the Dead Sea in March 1952.

The twelve columns of writing list at least 60 locations with descriptions of what was buried at each place. Its permanent home since 1967 has been in Amman, Jordan.

Learn more about how scholars perceive the supposed treasures documented on the Copper Scroll found in Qumran as part of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

How did your academic interests initially begin to focus on it?

My academic interest in the Copper Scroll arose because it had been opened in Manchester where I took up a position lecturing on Early Jewish literature, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, in 1984. The two rolls of copper had become completely oxidized as they had lain in the Cave since antiquity and so were too fragile to unroll. After some considerable deliberation amongst experts, it was decided that the two rolls should be opened in Manchester at what was then the College of Technology in 1955 and 1956 by being sawn into strips.

When I arrived in Manchester in 1984, I received a steady flow of enquiries about the Copper Scroll. Eventually I decided that the fortieth anniversary of its opening should be marked by hosting the scroll once again in Manchester in an exhibition.

The exhibition was planned to accompany an international conference on the Scroll at which all the world’s leading experts on the Scroll would come together to discuss what had been achieved at that point. In the event, the Exhibition was delayed for various reasons but the conference went ahead in September 1996.

Courtesy of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, the Copper Scroll revisited Manchester from October 1997 until January 1998 and was seen by about 40,000 people.

Is the Copper Scroll considered part of the Dead Sea Scrolls?

Yes. The term “Dead Sea Scrolls” actually refers to the manuscript discoveries since the Second World War at several sites in the Judean wilderness from Wadi Daliyeh, several kilometers north of Jericho, to Masada at the southern end of the Dead Sea.

These wide-ranging manuscript discoveries date from the 4th century BCE up until the early Arab period. However, the vast majority of manuscripts predate the end of the Second Jewish Revolt in 135 CE.

In common usage the term “Dead Sea Scrolls” is often thought to refer only to the finds from eleven caves at or near Qumran on the north-west shore of the Dead Sea. These are sometimes referred to as the Qumran Scrolls, and they variously date from the 3rd century BCE to the destruction of Qumran in 68 CE.

Since the Qumran site was only occupied from the second quarter of the 1st century BCE until 68 CE, it is clear that Scrolls were brought to Qumran from elsewhere—but some were indeed penned at Qumran.

Although it is highly distinctive, it was discovered by archaeologists in Cave 3, a cave from which were recovered fragments of several other scrolls which are more closely akin to the finds from the other caves which produced manuscripts.

So, it is most straightforward to accept that the Copper Scroll is to be considered as part of the Qumran Scrolls, but that does not necessarily mean that it was produced and engraved at Qumran.

How are the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Copper Scroll different?

The Copper Scroll is one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but it has certain distinctive features:

  1. Material. It is made of 99% pure copper, whereas all the other Scrolls are written on animal skin or papyrus. There are also some brief inscriptions on pottery sherds.
  2. Writing. Its writing was engraved, pressed into the copper with a tool, rather than written with ink by a stylus.
  3. Language. Its Hebrew is slightly different from that of most of the other Qumran Scrolls, having some features found in later Mishnaic Hebrew.
  4. Contents. It is the only list of buried treasures to be found amongst all the Scrolls. Fifth, in the margins of the first four columns at the end of some of the entries there are groups of two or three Greek letters.

Who wrote the Copper Scroll?

We don’t know the answer to this question. If the question is about who engraved it, then some scholars have wondered whether the engraver was illiterate. There might even have been more than one engraver.

Some of the letters are so ill-formed and look-alike letters (such as dalet and resh) so difficult to determine that it looks like someone is copying a written text without knowing their letters. Having someone illiterate engraving the text would reduce the risk of the contents becoming known.

If the question is about who composed it, then an answer depends upon how the text is understood. Those who link the text with the Qumran community and the wider movement of which it was a part would propose an Essene authorship. Those who link the contents with the Jerusalem Temple would suggest that a treasurer was involved.

And there are other possible scenarios.

What genre is it?

The text on the Copper Scroll is a list of buried treasure, describing quantities buried and their locations. The Scroll’s original editor proposed it was fictional through a comparison with the medieval Jewish text Masseket Kelim, a list of Temple vessels and other items.

A majority of those participating in the 1996 Manchester Conference voted in favor of seeing it as describing real treasure.

More recently some scholars have tried to suggest a combination of those approaches, arguing that some of the deposits refer to real treasure whilst other deposits are imaginary or mythical as is likely with the more or less contemporary Lindian Chronicle—a Greek temple inscription from 99 BCE which is both an inventory of actual objects and a list of legendary gifts to the Temple at Lindos.

How do we explain the novelty of the Copper Scroll?

List of buried treasure may not be particularly novel, but the Copper Scroll is certainly distinctive for its time and place. The novelty might rest in how one explains its purpose.

If it was an Essene product, then it might be describing the large amounts of valuables that accrued in the movement as new members joined and assigned their property to the community.

If it was a document produced at the Temple, then it could describe personal and other deposits left for security with Temple officials. For some reason (perhaps because of the approaching Roman forces after 66 CE), the deposits were scattered around the Judean wilderness and beyond. If the wealth in the deposits beyond to a later period, it could represent what accrued as Jews, especially those in the diaspora, continued to offer a temple tax, even though the Temple was no longer standing and the priesthood had been scattered.

Is the Copper Scroll a treasure map?

Yes. However, most of the locations are difficult to identify because they are expressed somewhat cryptically. For example, there are four references to Secacah, which is widely thought to be an allusion to the Qumran site. Some scholars have tried to interpret the map as depicting several different journeys made from Jerusalem to make deposits in various places.

What kind of treasures are described in the Copper Scroll?

Most of the items in the Scroll are quantities of silver and gold. Additionally, in some of the deposits there is mention of valuable vessels, such as:

  • goblets, cups, bowls and ewers (deposit 12)
  • tithe vessels and garments (deposit 13)
  • an urn containing a book (deposit 25)
  • tithe vessels and books (deposit 33)
  • tithe vessels (deposit 51)
  • and one chest and all its vessels (deposit 57).

How many Jerusalem Temple treasures have been discovered as a result of the Copper Scroll?

None. The Arch of Titus in Rome depicts items from the Temple which were paraded through Rome. Other items were no doubt destroyed in 70 CE. Some items might have been hidden away, as the Copper Scroll might imply.

Since Temples in the ancient world commonly functioned as places for secure deposits, it is likely that the Romans tortured any people they thought responsible for hiding valuables until all was revealed.

The Romans got there first!

The Arch of Titus depicts a menorah that may have been among Jerusalem's temple treasures listed in the Copper Scrolls.
The Arch of Titus may depict some items documented in the Copper Scrolls.

Do geographical references in the Copper Scroll match actual places?

Yes. The majority of locations are obscure, either because they are too imprecise (e.g., “near the bend in the water channel”), or because they are not yet identified precisely (see the comment on Secacah above). However, there are indeed references to known sites, such as Mt Gerizim, Absalom’s Monument (Jerusalem), and the Siloam Spring.

How does the Copper Scroll align with other findings from that period?

It is well known that sheets of copper were commonly used for inscriptions in the ancient Mediterranean world. Usually they were small. Most commonly a slave’s manumission was commonly inscribed on a small copper sheet which would be worn around the neck to indicate the slave’s free status.

As for lists of treasure, the Lindian Chronicle provides a parallel. No hoards of Jewish treasure have been found, but it is known that armies frequently engaged in plundering Temples and moving their wealth to other places.

Have new technologies influenced our understanding of the Copper Scroll?

The conservation of the three sheets of the Copper Scroll by Electricité de France (EDF) in the 1990s resulted in clearer readings of several letters, though much still remains ambiguous. The computer-assisted production by EDF of fully-flattened replicas of the Scroll have also assisted in greater appreciation of what the original Scroll might have looked like and how it might have been fixed to a wooden base in its original location.

In addition to other places the replicas are located in the Louvre (Paris), the Ecole biblique et archéologique française (Jerusalem), and in Amman.

What do you think the future of Copper Scroll academia looks like?

It is unlikely that the decipherment of the Scroll will be much improved now that we have all the best images possible provided by EDF and carefully discerned by Émile Puech. There will always be room for some debate about the decipherment, since some letters are so poorly formed.

The most likely advance is to be made in understanding better the nature of the measurements given in the Scroll. Originally interpreted as enormous quantities, they seemed to suggest the text was a fantasy. But improved understanding—which can be improved further no doubt—will probably make it all the more likely that at least some of the treasure referred to is in realistic quantities.

Some of the locations may yet be identified, but it is highly unlikely that any treasure will be found after so many years.

About the interview participant

George J. Brooke is an Emeritus Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at the University of Manchester. The Dead Sea Scrolls are his primary research interest, and he is considered one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Copper Scroll. He is the author of numerous related publications, including “Biblical Interpretation in the Wisdom Texts From Qumran,” “Aspects of Matthew’s Use of Scripture in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” and The Complete World of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Further reading

Copper scroll resources

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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