The Copper Scroll: a real-life archaeological treasure map?


Ad Honorem
Jun 2011
“Archaeology is the search for fact, not truth. If it’s truth you’re interested in, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall. So forget any ideas you’ve got about lost cities, exotic travel, and digging up the world. We do not follow maps to buried treasure and “X” never, ever, marks the spot!”
Dr. Henry Jones Jnr, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

This is an admirable statement of the aims of archaeological excavation, all the more remarkable because it comes from a fictional archaeologist with pronounced grave-robbing tendencies. But is it always necessarily true? If there is one real-life artefact capable of exciting our inner Indies, it would have to be the intriguing and infuriating Copper Scroll.

The Copper Scroll (known to unromantic papyrologists as DSS 3Q15) is part of the extraordinary cache of 1st Century documents first discovered by Bedouin at Qumran in Israel, popularly known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Copper Scroll, however, is very different from the other documents in the Qumran library, which mainly comprise pesharim on Jewish scriptures, documents about the sect’s organisation, and speculations about the imminent Messianic age. For a start, as its name suggests, it was written on two thin pieces of copper, which is highly unusual for a document of substantial length (although perhaps not unique, if there is anything in recent media reports of an early Christian lead codex surfacing on the black market). Rather surprisingly for the ascetic and unworldly inhabitants of the Qumran monastery, the treasures referred to in the Copper Scroll are not spiritual, but very definitely material.

The Copper Scroll gives directions to 64 locations, 63 of which are claimed to contain huge deposits of valuable treasure. The quantities involved are staggering – so staggering, in fact, that they are highly suspicious. If taken seriously, then ¼ of the gold in existence in the first century, and ¼ of all the silver ever mined, are lying in hiding-spots throughout the Holy Land waiting to be found! In total, over 4,600 talents of precious metal are listed on the scroll, making the total haul worth in excess of a billion dollars. In fact, most scholars conclude that these stratospherically high figures cannot possibly be accurate: and “exaggerated” numbers are by no means the only problems with the Copper Scroll.

The first problem is identifying exactly what this alleged treasure actually was. The Qumran sectarians most likely belonged to the Essene sect of Judaism, as described by Philo, Josephus and Pliny the Elder (this is not a unanimous consensus, but it is most definitely the overwhelming majority opinion and, as the Qumran scholar J. J. Collins observed, people who reject the identification are starting to look “perverse”.) Both Josephus and Pliny describe the Essenes as ascetics, who avoided contact with money as far as possible, held all property in common and refused to buy into the principle of private property. The Qumran sect’s own organisational documents broadly support this picture. It has been suggested that the staggering treasures described in the Copper Scroll might be the common property of the sect, but this stretches credulity since the Essenes were a very small movement (Philo, Every Good Man is Free 75, puts the total number of Essenes in Judaea and Syria at just four thousand). It’s hard to imagine where such a minor movement, and a movement which preached a rejection of worldly goods, would have got their hands on so much loot. (Attempts to argue that the Copper Scroll is a later non-Essene document that got mixed up with the rest of the Qumran library have not been persuasive or attracted much support). An alternative theory is that the Scroll points to hiding places in which parts of the Jerusalem Temple Treasure was located. The Temple treasure is by far the best candidate for large deposits of treasure in Israel since, despite fairly regular Roman depredations, the Temple remained fabulously wealthy. However, this hypothesis is also problematic, since the Essene sect were actually opposed to the contemporary administration of the Temple, and it isn’t clear why the Temple authorities would entrust such sensitive information to their opponents. The difficulties of identifying any plausible treasure to which the Scroll might refer have led some experts, starting with J. T. Milik, to argue that the whole thing is a fiction, an imaginative reconstruction of the resting places of the lost treasures of the First Temple. And even if the Scroll does refer to the treasures of the Second Temple, there is a good chance that they were found by the Romans who destroyed the Temple in 70, after the extermination of the Qumran monastery, since Josephus tells us that the Romans used torturers to help locate hidden treasures. In other words, there is a good chance that the Romans have beaten us to it, and that the Copper Scroll might be a treasure map that leads to nothing.

But why the need for all this speculation? We’ve got a treasure map: so why don’t we go out and follow it! Alas, it isn’t that simple. There are a number of problems with the text of the Copper Scroll itself. The process of writing on copper had an effect on the way the scribe formed his Hebrew letters, meaning that a number of letters look basically identical, which makes some words very hard to read. The scroll contains a high proportion of unknown words: words in ancient Hebrew which do not appear in either Biblical or Apocryphal writings, and so have simply been forgotten. When faced with such words, translators can do little but make intelligent guesses at what they mean. Moreover, the directions contained in this “treasure map” are often highly specific and, deprived of a wider context, impossible to follow. Consider this, for example:

“Forty two talents lie under the stairs in the salt pit ... Sixty five bars of gold lie on the third terrace in the cave of the old Washers House ... Seventy talents of silver are enclosed in wooden vessels that are in the cistern of a burial chamber in Matia's courtyard. Fifteen cubits from the front of the eastern gates, lies a cistern. The ten talents lie in the canal of the cistern ... Six silver bars are located at the sharp edge of the rock which is under the eastern wall in the cistern. The cistern's entrance is under the large paving stone threshold. Dig down four cubits in the northern corner of the pool that is east of Kohlit. There will be twenty two talents of silver coins.”
(DSS 3Q15, col. II, translation by Hack and Carey.)

Without a starting point, such directions are meaningless. And, needless to say, we don’t have a starting point.

So this is the reality behind the Copper Scroll. The figures it lists are unbelievable. Its treasures may well be fictional, or already looted. It is largely illegible or unintelligible. Despite being available for several decades, it has not yielded a single material find, although people have certainly gone looking. In all probability, we will never be able to follow this treasure map to any one of its sixty-four “x”s. Nevertheless, to anyone who has a little bit of the Indiana Jones spirit inside them, it will remain a fascinating and fabulously promising document. It’s worth pointing out that if any one of the hidden treasures it lists is discovered, the find would be valuable enough to generate global headlines. The Scroll is a frustrating and tantalising historical conundrum, but one that speaks to any would-be Howard Carters out there who long to peer into the darkness of an ancient chamber and see “wonderful things”, “all around the glint of gold.”