In the winter of 1947, a Bedouin shepherd named Muhammed edh-Dhib stumbled across a cave on the west side of the Dead Sea. In this cave (later called Qumran Cave 1), he discovered some scrolls, and seven of them were almost complete. The Bedouin desired to sell the scrolls, and they used an antiques dealer in the town of Bethlehem. A Syrian Orthodox monastery purchased four of the scrolls, and E.L. Sukenik bought the other three. Sukenik was an Israeli archaeologist who was one of the founding members of the archaeology department at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Over the next few years, numerous manuscripts were found in other caves in the area. Excavation work in the caves began in early 1949 under the direction of G. Lankester Harding and Roland de Vaux (in Cave 1), and it continued throughout most of the 1950s.
In late 1950, de Vaux and Harding also began digging at the site of Qumran that was located on the west side of the Dead Sea near the caves. They believed that Qumran was home base for a group of Jews called Essenes. During the second to first centuries BC, a small group of Jews had broken from the priesthood in Jerusalem because the latter had secularized. Both Josephus and Philo put the number of Essenes at four thousand. A small group of them withdrew to the desert to prepare the way for God (based on Isa. 40:3), and they founded the desert community at Qumran under the leadership of the “Teacher of Righteousness.” They set themselves up as the “true Israel” and bound themselves by a new covenant that they believed would help bring in a theocratic kingdom. Most scholars believe that it was this group of Essenes that wrote and copied the Dead Sea Scrolls hidden in the caves near Qumran. (Some other scholars think the group at Qumran was not Essene but rather a different splinter group.)
Excavations at Qumran from the Essene habitation (c. 150 BC–AD 68) uncovered no living accommodations. Apparently, the Essenes lived in caves in the adjoining cliffs, or perhaps in tents, and they gathered for religious and economic activities at the site. Qumran was likely a celibate community: excavation of the cemetery has revealed that most bodies were adult males, with only a few women and children. The site contained an elaborate water system, including ritual baths (mikvot) that the Essenes used for baptismal purification. Excavators also discovered a refectory (a room used for communal meals) with hundreds of bowls, plates, and other food vessels. Most importantly, they unearthed a scriptorium that contained in its debris a plastered writing table and two inkwells. Many of the scrolls that were found in the caves were probably copied in this installation.
Approximately nine hundred manuscripts, in various states of preservation, were found in the Qumran caves (marked Caves 1–11). Cave 4 yielded the greatest amount of written material, around eight hundred documents. Most of the manuscripts are made of leather, although there are some made of papyrus. A majority of the documents are written in Hebrew, some in Aramaic, and a few in Greek. The types of manuscripts may be divided into three general groupings: texts of the Hebrew Bible, noncanonized religious texts of the Second Temple Period (c. 516 BC–AD 70), and sectarian texts not found elsewhere. Included in the Second Temple Period texts are works from the Apocrypha, such as the book of Tobit, and from another group of extrabiblical texts called the Pseudepigrapha, such as the book of Enoch. The sectarian works included rulebooks for the community, calendars, prayers, magical texts, and major works such as the War Scroll and the Temple Scroll.