Dead Sea Scrolls' collection history, and Schøyen Collection's history

The history of the collection of the Dead Sea Scrolls is very long and complicated; but since Martin Schøyen is ‘one of the few individuals in the world… who owns Dead Sea Scroll material’ (Shanks, 2002), their collection history might inform understanding of the Schøyen Collection’s history.(1)

Illicit trading, illicit export

The first seven Dead Sea Scrolls were found accidentally (rather than excavated archaeologically, or looted illicitly) (Greenfield, 2007: 214).

But instead of reporting them to the British colonial Palestinian Department of Antiquities, the Bedouin finders took the scrolls to Syrian Christian private antiquities dealers “Kando” Khalil Iskander Shahin and George Isaiah (or Shaya).

The antiquities dealing was ‘illegal’ (VanderKam and Flint, 2002: 14), but Shahin and Isaiah sold four to Syrian Jacobite Church Archbishop (Mar) Athanasius Yeshua Samuel, and three (through archaeologist Prof. (Eliezer or) Eleazar Sukenik) to Hebrew University (Greenfield, 2007: 215).

Archbishop Samuel ‘illegal[ly]’ removed (smuggled) “his” scrolls from the Palestine Mandate to Lebanon, and thence to the United States (VanderKam and Flint, 2002: 10), where he tried to sell them. Samuel’s transfer of cultural property without an export licence was illegal, and its illegality was public knowledge.(2)

Eventually, Israel bought the scrolls (through an intermediary for archaeologist Yigael Yadin, who was the former Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), and the son of Eliezer Sukenik).

Illegal excavations

Archbishop Samuel also acquired new fragments when he ‘sent’ someone from his monastery who ‘removed’ them (VanderKam and Flint, 2002: 11). As Jeannette Greenfield (2007: 215) said, Archbishop Samuel and antiquities dealer Isaiah ‘conducted their own illicit excavations’.

(Indeed, Amman Chief Inspector of Antiquities G. L. Harding said that he identified the cave of the Dead Sea Scrolls by the spoil heap of the ‘illegal excavations’ (cited in VanderKam and Flint, 2002: 12).)

‘Bedouin explorers’ found further fragments in February 1952, and the Palestine Archaeological Museum and the École Biblique bought them (‘with the agreement of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities’).

An expedition of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) found two more fragments in the ‘thoroughly… cleared’ cave and little more archaeological material in the (looting-)’honeycombed’ cliffs in March 1952 (VanderKam and Flint, 2002: 15).

‘Bedouin explorers’ conducted a ‘survey’ in August 1952, when they found and offered ‘about 15,000’ fragments for sale, and provided ‘false information… to protect their treasure and their profit’, whereupon Amman Chief Inspector of Antiquities G. L. Harding bought ‘some’ for £1,300 (VanderKam and Flint, 2002: 16).

Then Harding ‘caught the Bedouin at their work’ (VanderKam and Flint, 2002: 17), and though they escaped with their finds, Harding eventually bought them and ‘perhaps 15,000 fragments… were, for the most part, kept in the country’ (VanderKam and Flint, 2002: 17); there were other finds by archaeologists in 1955 and by Bedouin in 1956.(3)(4)

Schøyen’s Dead Sea Scroll Collection

Biblical Archaeology Review editor Hershel Shanks (2002) proposed that,
If you have a Dead Sea Scroll for sale, you should get in touch with Martin Schøyen…. He is a prime prospect. He already owns several Dead Sea Scroll fragments….

… Schøyen also has one of the unusual pottery jars from Qumran in which the Bedouin found the first intact scrolls in 1947 or 1948.

He also owns a beautiful bronze inkwell… and a small bronze incense altar… that purportedly come from the settlement at Qumran, where many of the scrolls were probably written.

Shanks went on to say that
Schøyen insists, however, that he does not buy looted objects…. He will, however, purchase a looted item if a museum or scholar asks him to “rescue” it.
Yet in his introduction to the Schøyen Collection of Dead Sea Scroll fragments (and related artefacts), Biblical and Jewish Studies Prof. Torleif Elgvin said that Schøyen ‘acquired’ 60 fragments from 15 scrolls ‘found by the Bedouin’ and ‘sold to the dealer Kando’.

As far as I know, all of the chance finds are in public collections; if Schøyen bought antiquities from Khalil Iskander Shahin (Kando), he probably bought looted antiquities.

It’s possible someone asked Schøyen to ‘rescue’ the artefacts, but since Jordan has ‘claimed the scrolls as [its] property’ since their discovery (Greenfield, 2007: 216), it’s probable Jordan might have wanted what few fragments it could get.

Bedouin illicit excavation

Just as a brief note of explanation, I am against the illicit antiquities trade, and the consequent destruction of cultural heritage, but I do not normally blame the looters, because they are often very poor, and remain poor despite their illicit excavations.

As Dead Sea Scrolls scholar John Allegro observed,
the [Bedouins’] work is tedious and back-breaking in the extreme, and certainly no member of the expedition… would begrudge the Ta’amireh a penny of their gains (cited in VanderKam and Flint, 2002: 18).
After a Recommendation in 1964, the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property made trading in illicitly excavated, exchanged or exported artefacts illegal in 1970 (and Norway only ratified it in 2007).

So, since Schøyen’s Dead Sea Scroll fragments and associated artefacts were first illicitly excavated and traded between 1946 and 1956, he did nothing illegal in acquiring them.
For example, temporary director of the American School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, Dr. John C. Trever, knew that the export was ‘technically illegal’, but didn’t care as long as the Scrolls were ‘safe’ (cited in VanderKam and Flint, 2002: 10).
Israeli archaeologist Dr. Uzi Dahari (2002) noted that the ‘Bedouin antiquity robbers” ‘illicit excavations’ between the (1951-1956) excavation seasons of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities were carried out ‘[d]espite all’ the Jordanian antiquities department’s ‘efforts’.
Since the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel has occupied East Jerusalem, and thus has had control of the Palestine Archaeological Museum (also known as the Rockefeller Museum). Apart from political possession and simple physical access, this occupation has caused other scholarly dilemmas.

In a 13th December 1983 letter to the Guardian, Semitic philologist John Marco Allegro stated that ‘the then editor-in-chief [of the publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls] forbade [his] return to the “Scrollery” in the Palestine Archaeological Museum after 1967’, but that his ‘ecclesiastical colleagues did return to continue their work on many occasions’ (cited in Brown, 2005: 264).


Brown, J A. 2005: John Marco Allegro: The maverick of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Dahari, U. 2002: “The importance of the discoveries in the Judean Desert”. Paper presented at the President’s Forum on Archaeology: Completion of the Publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jerusalem, Israel, 5th June. Israel Antiquities Authority. Available at:⊂_subj_id=524 [Also available at:]

Elgvin, T. 2007: “Dead Sea Scrolls”. The Schøyen Collection, 2nd March. Available at:

Greenfield, J. 1996: The return of cultural treasures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Greenfield, J. 2007: The return of cultural treasures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shanks, H. 2002: “Scrolls, scripts and stelae: A Norwegian collector shows BAR his rare inscriptions”. Biblical Archaeology Review, Volume 28, Number 5. Available at:,_Scripts_and_Stelae,_Hershel_Shanks,_BAR_28:05,_Sep/Oct_2002.

UNESCO. 1964: Recommendation on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. Available at:

UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation). 1970: Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. Available at:

VanderKam, J C and Flint, P W. 2002: The meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Their significance for understanding the Bible, Judaism, Jesus, and Christianity. London: T&T Clark International.

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