Qumran, West Bank Archaeologists digging close to the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found have discovered a mausoleum and a nearby coffin that may have held the bodies of important leaders from the early days of Christianity.
While the researchers say the new find is highly intriguing, they may never know who is buried at the site.
The mausoleum and the coffin were found in the barren hills overlooking the Dead Sea, only a few hundreds yards from caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947.
The archaeologists also found a previously undetected cave, where they uncovered a mat and fabric woven from goat's hair, which may shed extra light on its inhabitants, who lived there around the 1st century A.D.
Speaking Thursday at the excavation site, Hanan Eshel, a professor at Tel Aviv's Bar Ilan University, told The Associated Press the mystery grave was located a year ago using state-of-the-art radar equipment.
But grave robbers, who presumably saw the archaeologists looking around the area last year, had already plundered the site by the time the formal dig began.
"We were able to take out what the robbers had left us, which was the bottom of the coffin, and it was very interesting," said Eshel, one of the co-leaders of the dig by American and Israeli archaeologists. "The coffin was made out of zinc, and this is the first time that we have a zinc coffin found in Palestine and Israel."
The zinc had been soldered around an inner wooden casket and brought, with bones inside, for reburial at Qumran, where an ascetic Jewish sect known as the Essenes had set up a retreat.
The sect's scribes produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest Hebrew biblical texts to be found so far, including a copy of the Book of Isaiah, scriptural commentaries and rules of conduct for its members, who lived a life of prayer, celibacy and strict ritual purity.
On the approach of the Roman army in the 1st century A.D., they sealed their precious writings in pottery jars and hid them in almost inaccessible caves in the surrounding cliffs.
The first of the Dead Sea Scrolls was discovered in 1947 by Bedouin shepherds pursuing a lost animal. Nine hundred volumes have been recovered since.
Richard Freund of the University of Hartford said the latest discovery challenges previous assumptions about the community and its cemetery of 1,178 graves.
"The big theory is, this is an Essene settlement, these are Essene bodies, these people were part of this Essene community. Whoever was buried in this very elaborate coffin was probably not one of these very simple, pristine members he was an influential person," he said.
The dig's co-director, Israeli archaeologist Magen Broshi, was cautious in characterizing the coffin's occupant. "The only thing we can be certain of is that he was a very affluent man," he said.