By SHELLEY NEESE—
Driving down Israel’s Highway 90 in a nine passenger rental van, a group of explorers stare silently at the Judean desert outside. They’ve come from Oklahoma and North Texas and their stories leading them here are as varied as their silhouettes against the van windows. They are united in this, they each know that somewhere out there, hidden under thousands of years of dust and rock, lies the priestly vestments, the urn of the red heifer, and the gold and silver contained in the ancient temple of Israel. Maybe more is waiting, maybe the Ark of the Covenant itself. They’re convinced they know where to look, and in a matter of hours shovels will finally break ground.
The team’s boss is Jim Barfield. A retired fire marshal, Barfield has a deep tan and thick white hair that falls below his shoulder blades, making him look more Native American than he can actually account for. Two years ago, he applied his arson investigation skills to the Copper Scroll, a treasure map found hidden in a cave with other Dead Sea Scrolls. He believes he’s “cracked the code” to the treasure locations that have eluded scholars for fifty years. Barfield has no university degree but he retired young so he could have more time for study and research, which usually takes place at a local Starbucks in Lawton, Oklahoma.
As for the rest of the team, each is as unlikely as the next to be included in something like this. Mac—a successful cattle rancher who’d been gored by a bull the day before leaving for Israel—had never been on an airplane before. His seven foot frame made for an interesting contortion in economy class. The last time Larry was in an international city was Saigon during Vietnam. Ken invented a remote control robot on wheels mounted with an infrared camera to use at some of the harder to reach sites. Shawn, the project’s videographer, is Barfield’s son. Laid-back with his director’s goatee and vintage clothing, he’s documented every important moment leading up to the dig. Linda is a surgical nurse and Messianic who made sure that on the weekends the team had proper Shabbats. Chris is an online tractor dealer who some consider Barfield’s armor-bearer. Barfield’s right hand man from the beginning, he’s never missed an exploratory trip to Israel, speaking engagement, or planning meeting.
April 21 is the first scheduled dig day for The Copper Scroll Project and the group has to drive from Arad—where they have been loaned a free house to stay—to the Dead Sea area. Highway 90, the only way to get there, is a roller-coaster of a road where the driver has no option but to ride the breaks all the way down the winding decline. Reaching the lowest place on Earth isn’t easy.
As the team piles out from the van, the archeologist, Oren, from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) is already waiting. Soft-spoken by Israeli standards, Oren has a large frame, wears a black pair of Oakley sunglasses, and ties a white shirt to the top of his bald head for sun protection. He hadn’t been warned that such a large group was coming with Barfield, but he politely shakes hands and introduces everyone to his three Palestinian diggers, his work companions for the last seventeen years.
Within thirty minutes black tarps with large holes are loosely tied to metal poles stuck in the ground. The digging is about to commence. For all the technological advances of the modern world, the archeological process is still surprisingly primitive: picks, shovels, and buckets.
Barfield is allowed to select the place where he wants to start the dig. He chooses the last place listed in the Copper Scroll, but the most important because it promises another scroll that clarifies all the hiding spots.
Item 64: “In the tunnel which is in Sechab, to the North of Kochlit, which opens towards the North and has graves in its entrance: a copy of this text and its explanation and its measurements and the inventory of everything, item by item.”
No one from the team is allowed to help with the digging but they are too excited to sit passively and watch. Each person finds their own non-intrusive perch, out from the tarp and away from Oren and Barfield, but close enough that they won’t miss a thing. After thirty minutes, before the diggers break a sweat, a strange lip forms in a part of the rock indicating an empty cavity. The diggers follow with their picks where the lip curves under. Ken gives the group a hopeful wink and Chris sneaks a thumbs up. Shawn adjusts his camera for a better angle while whispering to his dad, “Maybe after this we can go search for Atlantis.” Barfield stays quiet and never takes his eyes off the shovels. Linda prays aloud, anointing the caves contents. Oren moves the diggers aside to get a better look.
The Palestinians pull out thirty buckets of dirt and one scorpion before they hit solid rock behind the lip. Oren brushes the area off for a final examination and reports without emotion, “It’s nothing.” The giddy chatter turns into a deflated silence. If they’re looking for a cave entry, solid rock equals dead end. Barfield sends a few team members back to the van to get chairs and ice chests. Shawn turns one camera off; he’s thinking about conserving battery now.
The lip is just a small portion of the potential cave site and the diggers go for five more hours, wrapping around the rock heap to a depth of about three feet. When the tarps no longer protect them from the midday sun, the work pace slows and water breaks increase. The team is hot and starting to admit to each other that at this pace it will be a longer process than anyone first thought. They creep under the tarp, figuring if they keep quiet then they can enjoy the shade without bothering Oren and the diggers.
At that moment, Oren says he wants to stop digging at the cave and move on to test another site. “There is no sign of humans being here—no pottery, no nothing. It’s just natural dirt.” Barfield, who has not sat down all day, stands there in his battle dress uniform—a white V-neck shirt, camoflauge pants, and a leather explorer hat which could easily land him a role in an Indiana Jones sequel. Barfield’s confidence in his theory isn’t shaken but he knows that for the cave to be fully tested they will have to dig another six feet down and ten feet back. Not wanting to get the dig bogged down but also wanting to leave the door open to return at some point to the rock, Barfield negotiates. “That’s fine.” He says. “All I ask is that the dirt not be filled back in.” Oren agrees.
Item 9: “And in the gutter which is in it: ten talents.”
On day two of the dig Oren suggests testing the gutter, the ninth site listed in the scroll. A year earlier on a scouting trip, Barfield and Chris casually peaked into this gutter’s opening, spotting a jewel seven inches long lying in the dirt. What they thought was the biggest diamond they’d ever seen was actually a 13-sided prism used in New Age ceremonies for Earth healing (similar ones on Ebay go for a thousand dollars). Since that day, Barfield has hoped that if a prism could be on the dirt’s surface then greater things could lie underneath.
Without knowing exactly where the items in the gutter are buried, the entire length of the shaft needs to be excavated, about twenty feet. Ken’s robot camera sits in the van on standby. Only two diggers can work at a time and each shovel of dirt is examined for artifacts. Since over two-thousand years at least a foot of dirt has blown into the gutter, getting past cigarette butts and grocery bags to a first century level takes two hours. The diggers have trouble getting at the correct angle to properly excavate the shaft.
After finding no more than pottery shards, Oren decides it’s time to test a third site. Barfield shows no hint of dejection but does speak up. “The depths the Scroll mentions are around six feet below virgin soil.” He says. “We haven’t gotten close to that.” Oren advises that it’s best to return later to the gutter with a metal detector.
Item 44 and 45: In the cistern which is to the North of the mouth of narrow pass of Beth-Tamer, in the rocky ground of Ger Pela, everything which is there is a sacred offering. In the dovecote of the fortress of Nabata […]
Barfield wants to avoid repeating the same problems as the first two dig sites and believes its time to visit one of the most pinpointed of the sixty total locations. Oren chooses a different site along a broken wall, which the team fears has all the same problems as the other two. It will require a further depth than Oren may be willing to check. Normally very talkative, Barfield nods, avoiding any conflict with his archeologist.
“I wish I could get in there and do the digging myself,” Mac says aloud to anyone who’ll listen. Larry paces the dirt and formulates conspiracies to explain who in the Israeli government is stopping these items from being found. Shawn has the look of a concerned son. He has his own ambitions to make a career-defining documentary, but he sets the camera down and watches his father, looking for any sign of disappointment. He sees only a determined father who doesn’t give up easy, but he leans over to me saying, “What will Paw tell everyone back home at Starbucks if we have to quit already?”
To properly excavate around the wall, the Palestinian diggers will need to go at least eight feet deep and stretch the entire breadth of the wall. They look confused when Oren gives these directions as their excavation routine never goes past virgin soil. The Arabic banter increases and their mood becomes testy, but they ultimately exhume a hole four feet deep and three feet wide. Mac stands in the hole and it stops around his chest.
None of the three sites are filled back in because Oren wants to use a metal detector over them before making a conclusion. The morning they meet to metal detect also happens to be Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers of war. Oren is active in the reserves and is scheduled to be part of the day’s ceremonies. “We have just one hour to do this.” He tells Barfield. “I have to be back for the ceremonies at nine.” Barfield knows one hour is a desperate attempt at best. “Okay,” he mutters back, “glad we’re on time. Let’s see what we can do.” Oren pulls a White’s metal detector out of his truck, a good brand but it will not detect metal more than three feet deep. Oren makes an unusual request: no videotaping while he is detecting. He rushes off with Barfield and Chris to go over the sites. The only time the detector beeps is when it touches Oren’s steel-toed shoe or picks up the occasional gum wrapper.
As the group walks back to the car frustrated from the course of the short day, Oren senses the disappointment. “Archeology requires patience.” He offers to the group. “And I have a lot of it.”
Nervous silence engulfs the van now on its way back to Arad. All eyes are on Barfield, and he knows the next words spoken must be his own. “This operation has been like having a huge bowl of your favorite ice cream placed in front of you,” he says, “and only getting one lick.” He stops at the next gas station and sponsors ice cream bars for all.
When Jim Barfield first cracked the code on the Copper Scroll he was in his home office in Oklahoma and had no idea what to do with the information. Just two years later, he was beaming at the site of the first shovels breaking ground. “I still can’t get over that we are here and the dig is actually happening.” He says. “I have to be thankful it has come this far.” Nothing in Barfield’s research has been proven, but nothing has been disproven either. For now the project goes on even as the group returns home to the U.S. They remain as loyal and confident as ever, if not a little battle-hardened. All they need is a fresh dose of patience, and the next dig schedule.