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On the Insignificance and the Abuse of the Copper Scroll

By Robert R. Cargill, Ph.D.
Center for Digital Humanities
July 2009

The Copper Scroll has perplexed scholars and fueled the minds of fringe theorists for decades. It is not that the scroll is "mysterious;" we know what it says and what it purports to be: a list of buried treasure. Rather, the Copper Scroll is so anomalous among the Dead Sea Scrolls that scholars have relegated it to a realm of triviality bordering on insignificance. This 30 cm tall document etched on thin sheets of copper, rolled up, and oxidized by centuries of exposure to the environs of the Dead Sea was discovered in Cave 3 near Qumran in the West Bank. But while it was discovered along with hundreds of other documents that have collectively come to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Copper Scroll remains the mother of all anomalies.

Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls are written on parchment, with a few written on papyrus. But the Copper Scroll is etched on metal – unique among the documents discovered near the Dead Sea. Its language is unlike the literary Hebrew found in other Dead Sea Scrolls, and better resembles the Hebrew used much later in the Mishnah, the Jewish law code compiled around 200 CE. It also differs in palaeography (the script used to write the letters), orthography (the way words are spelled), date (50-100 CE), message (a vague map describing buried treasures), and genre (a list) from all other Dead Sea Scrolls.[1]

Scholars aren't quite sure what to do with the Copper Scroll. Milik concluded the Copper Scroll was placed in Cave 3 around 100 CE, after the other scrolls were abandoned in the other caves. Others like Lancaster Harding and Cross believe the Copper Scroll to be the folklore of Qumran. Still others believe it describes actual treasure belonging to the residents of Qumran. I join the scholars who conclude that the Copper Scroll describes articles from the second Jerusalem Temple (most likely legendary) supposedly hidden after its destruction in 70 CE, in keeping with later date of its composition. The Copper Scroll was most likely placed in Cave 3 long after the rest of the Dead Sea Scrolls were placed in their respective caves. And while it was discovered during the excavations that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Copper Scroll should not be considered part of this collection because its author(s), script, style, language, genre, content, and medium are otherwise unattested among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Because of this irregularity, amateur treasure hunters and even some scholars regularly appeal to the Copper Scroll in a seemingly perpetual effort to promote sensational fringe theories, raise money, and bring attention to their far-fetched claims. Sensationalists prey on the ambiguous and everyone loves a treasure hunt; the Copper Scroll is both.

The most recent dilettantish foray into Copper Scroll-related nonsense is "The Copper Scroll Project,"[2] led by Vendyl Jones disciple Jim Barfield, a retired arson investigator with a self-proclaimed "limited knowledge of Hebrew" and "no archaeological experience."[3] And yet, Barfield claims, "There's little doubt I've broken the code on the Copper Scroll,"[4] as if scholars had not already translated the document a half-century earlier. Not unexpectedly, Barfield never reveals what he claims to have "discovered," yet circularly argues that since several "rabbis, historians, theologians, and archaeologists" have seen his research and have not disagreed with him, he must be right.[5] Barfield naïvely concludes, "One of my greatest advantages I believe is that, uh, my lack of education in this area."[6] And yet, the group has set up a 501(c)3 non-profit, tax exempt fund for raising $148,000 they claim is needed to carry out their investigation.[7]

So with (an admittedly illegal) metal detector in hand,[8] a snazzy (but now broken) website,[9] a Facebook page,[10] and regular YouTube video updates (produced by Barfield's son),[11] Barfield keeps his "supporters" updated on their progress, which has curiously come to a halt in recent weeks. It seems that the Israel Antiquities Authority, who Barfield claims provided the permit for their excavation, has stopped returning their calls, and is no longer interested in working with them. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the Copper Scroll Project leaders have been making deliberately misleading claims about their role in the excavation. Or, perhaps it is due to a network of archaeologists, scholars, and bloggers working behind the scenes asking why the IAA would take money from posers like Barfield and the Copper Scroll Project.

Regardless of the reason, a few details have come to light regarding the Copper Scroll Project. An IAA representative familiar with the group says that they do not possess a license, are not permitted to dig, and are paying money to watch as observers. With only "observation" status,[12] they do not lead, coordinate, or participate in any excavation. They merely watch an IAA licensed excavation and document it on video. Thus, claims that they are leading an excavation are simply untrue. Ironically, claims by Barfield that the IAA excavators are "not digging to the required depth" are actually true. Because Barfield has no say over the excavation, the IAA digs as they wish and where they wish, and allow Barfield and company only to observe the excavation and report their findings to the public. That was, at least, until the IAA saw the claims Barfield was making. It appears the IAA now wants nothing to do with the Copper Scroll Project, fearing perhaps that their association with a fringe, prophecy-obsessed group of Messianic Christians with no archaeological experience might harm the department's credibility. Perhaps this is the reason that the Copper Scroll Project's April 26, 2009 YouTube update overdubs the name of the IAA "archaeologist" they claim was assisting them in the original update.[13] It certainly must explain Barfield 's most recent exasperated claim that, "Information and correspondence from Israel has stopped. Why, I can't tell you, but my email has not been answered since we left Israel in May."[14]

But it is not just wannabe archaeologists that prey on the Copper Scroll. Some scholars holding to fringe theories about the origin of the Dead Sea Scrolls regularly make the Copper Scroll a central pillar of their unlikely arguments. The University of Chicago's Norman Golb has made a name for himself in part by appealing to the Copper Scroll to argue in support of his version of Karl Rengstorf's theory that none of the Dead Sea Scrolls were produced at Qumran.[15] Others, like author Robert Feather, have written several books touting the Copper Scroll's connection to treasures from Egypt.[16] The fact that most scholars have wholly dismissed claims by the Barfields, Golbs, and Feathers of the world has not stopped the latter from publishing books and raking in money from a public more than willing to entertain speculation and sensationalist claims over scholarly consensus and sound academic research.

The Copper Scroll will no doubt continue to tempt the imaginations of scholars and the public alike. A good treasure hunt has always been profitable subject matter for Hollywood and booksellers. But for the wise, the Copper Scroll is little more than what scholars have claimed since the beginning: an anomaly discovered among the otherwise informative manuscripts comprising the Dead Sea Scrolls.


[1] Meir Bar-Ilan, "The Process of Writing the Copper Scroll," Bar Ilan Website, 2002 [cited July 2, 2009]. Available at

[2] Well chronicled by Richard Bartholomew at http:// [cited July 2, 2009].

[cited July 2, 2009].

[4], 3:32 [cited July 2, 2009].

[5], 3:39 [cited July 2, 2009].

[6], 2:56 [cited July 2, 2009].

[7] [cited July 2, 2009].

4:06 [cited July 2, 2009].

[9] [cited July 2, 2009].

/94698371827 [cited July 2, 2009].

id=5625 [cited July 2, 2009].

id=5625 [cited July 2, 2009].

[cited July 2, 2009]. Listen carefully to the audio at 0:28, 1:26, 2:18, 3:50, and again at 5:11.

[14] [cited July 2, 2009].

[15] See Golb, Norman, Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?: The Search for the Secret of Qumran (New York: Scribner, 1995), 117-150. See also Golb, Norman, "On the Jerusalem Origin of the Dead Sea Scrolls," University of Chicago Oriental Institute Website, 2009 [cited July 3, 2009], 1-2. Available at See also Harris, William, "Excavations Reinforce Golb's Contention of Where Dead Sea Scrolls Originated," University of Chicago Chronicle, Vol. 24, No. 4 (2004) [cited July 3, 2009]. Available at

[16] Feather, Robert, The Mystery of the Copper Scroll of Qumran: The Essene Record of the Treasure of Akhenaten, Rochester, VT: Bear & Co., 2003. See also Feather, Robert, The Copper Scroll Decoded: One Man's Search for the Fabulous Treasures of Ancient Egypt, London: Thorsons, 1999.