Dead Sea Jar Lid Found to Hold Decomposed Papyrus

See below for a press release following Dennis Mizzi’s presentation of our research paper at ASOR and SBL this week. In this paper we present the results we obtained on analysing the residue found in a jar lid now in the collection of Judith Brown. We are very grateful to her for permitting DQCAAS to take a sample for study.


A study of ancient residue in a clay jar lid, originally coming from the area where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, has shown that it contained decomposed papyrus. Numerous cylindrical jars and lids were found in caves close to the ancient site of Qumran, west of the Dead Sea, but these were largely broken and empty, and their association with scrolls has been doubted. The discovery of decomposed papyrus in one of the lids adds to the evidence that scrolls were once placed in them, even when no scroll fragments have survived.

Dr. Dennis Mizzi, of the University of Malta, announced the findings this week on behalf of an international team of researchers, at the American Schools of Oriental Research and Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meetings in San Diego.

The jar lid is now in a private collection. It was bought in 1963 by Scrolls scholar John Allegro, who was told reliably that the object came from the Qumran area. The researchers state in their paper that while the precise find spot cannot be determined exactly, ‘the jar and lid have a condition that would match what we would expect in a cave environment’, and their forms are the same as other Qumran jars and lids, which are of a class not found anywhere else.

John Allegro, the original purchaser, believed that the hardened residue was ‘bat dung’, but – fortunately – he never cleaned it out. A sample was sent for testing at Quest laboratories, at the University of Reading, UK, and the tests have concluded that the unknown material derives from a member of the sedge (Cyperaceae) family, such as the papyrus sedge, which is not local to the Dead Sea area, and therefore ‘probably comes from one or more degraded papyrus scrolls’.

The substance was analysed as an initiative of the Leverhulme-funded ‘Network for the Study of Dispersed Qumran Cave Artefacts and Archival Sources’ (DQCAAS), a collaboration between Prof. Joan Taylor (King’s College London), Dr. Dennis Mizzi (University of Malta), and Prof. Marcello Fidanzio (Università della Svizzera italiana). The scientific analysis was led by Dr. Kamal Badreshany (University of Durham).

The Dead Sea Scrolls are ancient manuscripts written in Hebrew, though some are also in Aramaic and Greek. They contain biblical and other religious writings copied over 2000 years ago, and mystery still surrounds them. The manuscripts were discovered in 11 caves close to Qumran from 1947 to 1956. Usually surviving in fragments, a few well-preserved scrolls were found in cylindrical jars, but there are many other nearby caves in which similar distinctive jars and lids were retrieved, without scrolls.

The new results probably indicate that a jar in a Qumran cave fell over and its papyrus contents spilled into the detached lid, then decomposed over the centuries. The researchers state: ‘Some scholars have long suspected that many other Qumran caves contained scrolls—that the caves with empty cylindrical jars were once scroll caves too … Our results provide further support to this hypothesis.’


Added on 22 January  2020:

By popular demand, the paper delivered in San Diego can be read here:

Allegro Jar and Lid ASOR-SBL final 2019


For further enquiries about the jar lid and the results, please contact  Prof. Joan Taylor,


15 thoughts on “Dead Sea Jar Lid Found to Hold Decomposed Papyrus

  1. Thanks for this and for getting it tested. Congratulations. Did John Allegro have reason to think this lid was found recently (to 1963) and/or in a different cave than the eleven? While I certainly do agree with you that scrolls were deposited in more than eleven caves in the Qumran area, is it possible that this lid came from one of the eleven caves?


    1. John Allegro was sure it came from another cave than the ones with manuscripts, but one in the Qumran area. Jars and lids from designated scrolls caves were more valuable, but the dealers apparently did not suggest this one came from such a cave.


      1. Thank you so much Joan, Dennis and Marcello for this intriguing find ! I am perhaps missing something here but my question would be: is there anyway we could find the matching jar to this lid with further scientific analysis ? This way we may be able to identify the cave this lid came from ?…..


      2. It would be nice, but the jar in the collection may not be the matching one at all. Fallen lids and smashed jars are as you know quite common in the Qumran caves. It is just very lucky that the residue of this one was not cleaned out.


  2. Thanks.
    Do you know whether the cave it came from was a natural limestone cave environment or a lower-down human-made marl cave?
    Given the careful scroll deposit method you have well described elsewhere, with jars, linen wraps, lids, etc., might this suggest that the scrolls (or some of them, anyway) were not deposited in a hurry, but were additionally intended to be available to be read at a future time when the Qumranites and allies (some say, Essenes) hoped the Temple would be purified?


  3. There is damp damage on the jar and lid, so they were in a cave environment subject to some water infiltration at some point. Otherwise it is hard to say.


    1. Bob at the time we wrote the abstract for ASOR/SBL we thought it was bought in 1962, but further archival study of the Allegro materials indicated it was 1963.


  4. Our conclusion is not really that there are further Dead Sea Scrolls waiting to be found (unless in a very obscure, sealed cave somewhere, which everyone hopes for), but that there were probably once Scrolls in the numerous Qumran caves where jars and lids have been recovered, caves in which no fragments of Scrolls were found. They have decomposed.


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