The parchments, only a few centimetres long, are said to contain extracts in Hebrew from the Biblical book of Leviticus.

 

They were found in a cave near the Ein Gedi oasis in the Judean desert that extends across Israel and the West Bank.

 

"Everything indicates that these parchments are authentic," Antiquities Department spokesman Osnat Gouez said on Friday.

 

It is the first time in nearly half a century that documents of this type have been discovered, he said.

 

Manuscripts dating from the same period - around the time of the second Jewish revolt against Roman occupation led by Simeon Bar Koshba - were discovered between 1952 and 1961 in the same area near the Dead Sea.

 

Bedouin find

 

The latest parchments were found by bedouin, who often scour the region for artefacts and ancient pottery that they can then sell.

 

In August 2004, archaeology professor Hanan Eshel, a Biblical specialist at Bar Ilan University, was summoned to authenticate the manuscripts, which he bought for $3000.

 

When they were found on the floor of the cave, the parchments were encased in a heavy layer of dust that had protected them for almost 2000 years.

 

The second Jewish revolt was crushed violently with the death of Simeon. Afterwards, Emperor Hadrian barred Jews from entering Jerusalem.

 

In 1947, the famous Dead Sea scrolls, dated to the first century BCE, were discovered by chance in Qumran by an Arab shepherd.