How real-life Indiana Jones put together the Scrolls of antiquity

SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: The archives at Croydon Minster contain many varied treasures, some of them with links going back to the dawn of civilisation, as DAVID MORGAN discovered

Old Town in water colour: Marco Allegro’s painting of Croydon, part of the Minster collection

Among the many and varied artefacts in the archives at Croydon Minster are paintings, including one work of art with an intriguing link to one of the great historical finds of the 20th Century: the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The picture in question shows a view of the church surrounded by buildings which are very different to the ones we can see today.

The clothes that the two figures are wearing date the painting to the end of the 19th or the beginning of the 20th Century.

The old lady with a grey coat and carrying a wicker basket is talking with a little girl, who is wearing a white pinafore apron and carrying a doll. Were they neighbours? Was she a grandmother speaking to her granddaughter?

On one of walls of the buildings behind the figures is painted a white cow.

It is the north side of the church which can been seen in the painting. However, it is a reasonable conjecture that the painting was composed not from the artist being there on the ground, but taken from using an old photograph.

The Dead Sea Scrolls: one of the great archaeological finds of the 20th Century

The painting is signed on the back “J Marco Allegro”, an artist who lived for many years in a terraced house on Nightingale Road in Carshalton.

After being demobbed from service in World War I, Allegro got a loan from an army colleague. He bought a printing press and put it in the shed in his garden. He soon had plenty of orders. Some of his best customers were local garages, wanting advertising posters and flyers. It wasn’t long before he had to expand his business.

The shed was taken down and a larger workshop was erected which took up much of the garden. Three people were employed in the growing business in order to meet the needs of his customers.

With his new found prosperity, Allegro bought himself a dinghy which he moored at Rochester. He would often take the boat out to a place where he could get out his sketchbook and watercolours and while away a couple of hours. His enjoyment and commitment to this hobby also saw him running the local art club for a time.

Controversial: John Allegro

Marco Allegro and his wife Mabel had three children: Sylvia, John Marco and Cynthia.

John was born in 1923 and attended Wallington County Grammar School. He also enjoyed drawing, preferring the medium of pencil rather than paint. He would usually sign his sketches John Allegro. He also excelled in another area. He was a writer and archaeologist and academic, who studied Hebrew and Ancient Greek and who specialised in ancient history. A kind of real-life Indiana Jones.

Having attained both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Manchester, after a period working at Oxford University, John Allegro specialised in studying the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are ancient Jewish and Hebrew religious manuscripts discovered in 1946-1947 in what was then Mandatory Palestine, on the northern shore of the Dead Sea. Dating from the 3rd Century BC to the 1st century AD, the Dead Sea Scrolls are considered to be a keystone in the history of archaeology, with great historical, religious, and linguistic significance.

From 1953 until his death in 1988, John Allegro was the British representative on the international Dead Sea Scrolls editing team; from 1961 until 1988 he was an advisor to the Jordanian government regarding the scrolls.

John Allegro spent a lot of time in the 1950s based in Jerusalem, collecting and working on the 2,000-year-old jigsaw puzzle. He relished the task of fitting the pieces together and interpreting what they said.

He even managed to have a copper scroll discovered in the caves brought back to Manchester University where he was a lecturer, for opening. His book, The Treasure of the Copper Scroll, was published in 1960, two years before an officially sanctioned publication. Allegro believed that the treasure described in the scroll was real and led an expedition to attempt to find items mentioned in the scroll, though without success.

As he worked on them over time, his rather independent and forthright views set him at odds with many others.

He felt that material as important as the Dead Sea Scrolls should be put into the public arena as soon as possible and he despaired of many of the group who were hesitant about their release. He wanted a more open debate about the contents.

2,000-year-old jigsaw: John Allegro working with fragments of the Scrolls

John Allegro liked nothing better than a challenging academic argument. Some of what he discovered seemed to go against the traditional teaching of the church. He would always ask probing questions, as he saw the Scrolls as a means to explore the origins of religion, including Christianity.

His passionate stance on freedom of thought and expression brought him into conflict with many. When in a radio broadcast he suggested that the Scrolls contained elements of the Christian narrative, he was shunned by others in the team. The Scrolls predated Christianity.

The Scrolls had been found in caves in Qumran, overlooking the Dead Sea, buried there by a sect living under Roman occupation. Some of the Scrolls contained Old Testament scripture and commentary, while others were about the Essene sect.

To try and understand more about where the later Gospel stories came from, John Allegro looked at the names, places and phrases found in the Scrolls and also in the New Testament. He felt that many accepted interpretations were puzzling or fanciful. His continued questioning took him deeper into the web of myths, traditions and history that can be found in the Bible.

In a book published by his daughter Judith Brown – John Marco Allegro: The Maverick of the Dead Sea Scrolls – she speaks of how her father’s later ideas were seen as too speculative, especially taking word derivations back to the earliest fertility cults.

His sudden death on his 65th birthday in 1988 meant that John Allegro never got the opportunity to develop his thinking further.

Previous articles by David Morgan:

David Morgan, pictured right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours or illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups.

To read his previous articles on the history of Croydon Minster and the people connected with it, click here

If you would like a group tour of Croydon Minster or want to book a school visit, then ring the Minster Office on 020 688 8104 or go to the website on www.croydonminster.org and use the contact page


About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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1 Response to How real-life Indiana Jones put together the Scrolls of antiquity

  1. Lewis White says:

    Amazing story.
    I hope that David is collecting all his stories published in Inside Croydon, and that they can also go into the Minster Archives in printed form– or preferably, as scrolls!.

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