In 1947 in the West Bank, not far from the site of the ancient city of Jericho, some teenage shepherds made an exciting discovery while tending their flocks and maybe also behaving a little like teenagers. One of these young men tossed a rock into an opening on the side of a cliff and heard a suspicious crashing sound. When the young man and his companions investigated, they discovered a collection of large clay jars, at least one of which contained the teenager’s rock, and seven of which contained the first texts discovered in the collection that came to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The discovery sparked a race of both Bedouins and archaeologists to scour the area for more, and eventually eleven nearby caves yielded hundreds of ancient texts that include portions of nearly every book in the Old Testament (and a complete copy of Isaiah), additional prophecies, descriptions of sectarian rules, military strategy, and poems of thanksgiving, among numerous other writings that have kept archaeologists geeking out for the last 65 years.
That’s all pretty great stuff, but I think the most intriguing discovery is what’s known as the Copper Scroll, found in March of 1952. It’s appropriately named because while all the other manuscripts found in the caves are written on parchment, this one is etched into copper sheeting. Its contents are pretty different from the other scrolls, too, because this one describes the world’s greatest treasure hunt, claiming to lead to what some estimate is over a billion dollars in silver and gold.
If you happen to be a first century Middle Easterner, familiar with the area, the clues are pretty simple. Each includes a general whereabouts (on the island that can only found by those who already know where it is), a specific spot (in the cupboard under the stairs), a depth for digging (as specified on a medallion last seen in a tavern in Nepal), and the treasure to be found (your body weight in gold, assuming you weigh the same as a duck). If you are a fluent reader of ancient Hebrew sprinkled with a little bit of Greek and a few typos, you might find they resemble a list of modern day letterbox clues.
In case you’re unfamiliar with letterboxing, it’s a treasure hunting hobby, in which people hide small, waterproof containers planted in clever outdoor (mostly) hiding spots and post clues online to help others find them. The containers each include a unique hand-crafted rubber stamp and a log book. When the seeker finds it, they stamp a personal book with the find and mark the box’s log book with their trail name signature stamp. Then they record the find online where they also warn the next letterboxer of the nearby nest of rattle snakes.
A friend of mine introduced me and my boys to the hobby last spring. We’ve had a lot of fun with it, but if you happen to speak letterbox, you’ll probably have an easier time. I’ve found about ten boxes, and failed to find several more. Most of my successes have come when my friend is with me because having planted many herself, she knows the lingo and has hiked most of the trails already, not to mention she possesses a significantly sharper sense of direction than I do.
Some of the clues are straight forward (once you learn some of the basics, like that SPOR is an acronym for Suspicious Pile of Rocks); others consist of word puzzles or are written in Elvish. Some clues are visible only to those who’ve logged a certain number of finds or who are personally acquainted with the planter and have been given a code word. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if some clues were even etched into copper and hidden in a cave somewhere in the West Bank.
I’m sure I hike past five or six for every one I discover. But I have a good time, and though I’ve never found a duck’s weight in gold, I did once find a particularly fancy pants eagle stamp with a gold ink pad.
And I’ve had way more success than those who have attempted to find the Copper Scroll treasures. Despite plenty of expeditions and a few unverified claims, no one has found any of the treasure yet. There’s debate among scholars about whether or not the treasure truly exists, and if it does, who planted it, and maybe even whether it can be found at all by someone who doesn’t already know where it is. But if anyone ever does find this fanciest of treasures, I bet the finder will be a letterboxer.