BIBLE: Dead Sea Scroll mystery unravels
THEY offer a tantalising clue to the origins and evolution of two of the world's most prominent religions.
But little is known about who collected and wrote them. Or why.
Now, 33 newly discovered skeletons found in the ruins of the Judaean Desert site of Qumran are beginning to give up their secrets.
The scrolls themselves are a revelation.
Their preserved remains date back 2200 years. It's taken 70 years to painstakingly piece their fragments together.
Some 980 separate manuscripts have since been identified.
They contain the written foundations of the Hebrew bible. Some appear to tease an emergence of a mindset that would ultimately evolve into the doctrine of Jesus Christ.
Earlier this year archaeologists announced the discovery of a 12th cave in the same area. It appears to have been prepared to hold scrolls or sheets of papyrus and leather as with the other caves. But it was empty.
So who pulled all these scrolls together into such a powerful collection? Who authored the unique documents among them?
For decades, this has been the realm of speculation.
Was it a group of soldiers? Of scribes? Or was it just a secret stash left behind by Bedouins?
Many historians believed the texts were linked to an ancient Jewish sect called the Essenes.
DEAD MEN TELL THEIR TALES
Radiocarbon dating of 33 skeletons excavated last year show them to belong to the era of the scrolls about 2200 years ago.
But it's not just the age of the West Bank Qumran skeletons that tie them to the secret hoard of documents cached away in the caves below the settlement.
Thirty of the skeletons were positively identified as belonging to men - based on bone shape and size. The remaining three may also have been men, but not enough of them remain to be sure.
They were aged between 20 and 50 years old. And none appeared to show the telltale signs of violence or hard labour.
This prompted the re-examination of 53 previously unearthed skeletons from Qumran now held in France: six individuals formerly thought of as women have now been reclassified as men.
This all fits with the tales that Qumran was a monastery. It was where the Essenes sent their most learned men to study and preserve their theological, legal and philosophical texts.
"I don't know if these were the people who produced the Qumran region's Dead Sea Scrolls," anthropologist Yossi Nagar says.
"But the high concentration of adult males of various ages buried at Qumran is similar to what has been found at cemeteries connected to Byzantine monasteries."
The researchers told a recent American Schools of Oriental Research assembly that the lack of females among the burials suggested it was a "community of ideologically celibate men".
The proportions of the skeletons and the general age of death match that commonly found among desert monasteric societies of later periods, they argue.
Proposals to extract DNA from the skeletons for analysis are being considered.
There's no conclusive evidence these were the men behind the Dead Sea Scrolls.
But it certainly adds substance to the idea Qumran was an island of radical thought for the 200 years leading up to the birth of Christ. According to Roman historians, the Essenes' most devout followers dedicated themselves to lives of poverty, chastity and deprivation at a monastery in the vicinity of the Dead Sea Scroll caves.
Archaeologists believe the Qumran settlement was founded some 2700 years ago. It was then abandoned before it was revived during the 200 years up to 68AD.