The Israel Antiquities Authority announced last weekend that six men have been charged with digging illegally for antiquities in a remote cave in the Judean Desert. The cave where they were apprehended, located on a sheer cliff face, is close to where the famed parchment and papyrus documents known as the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the 1940s and ‘50s, in one of the most dramatic archaeological discoveries of the 20th century. Archaeologists believe more scrolls may still be left undiscovered in the region, and Israeli authorities believe the alleged looters were looking for them.
The first of the Dead Sea Scrolls—also known as the Judean Desert Scrolls—were uncovered in 1947 by a shepherd looking for his stray goat. Among the fragments of ancient papyrus and parchment are some of the world’s oldest copies of Biblical texts, as well as secular documents dating to the first and second centuries A.D. Jewish rebels battling the forces of the Roman Empire used the Judean Desert as a hideout, particularly during the so-called Great Revolt against the Romans in A.D. 66–70 and the Bar Kokhba Revolt in A.D. 132–135. In addition to the scrolls, the rebels left artifacts including leather, bone and wooden objects, many of which have been preserved thanks to the arid desert climate.
Israeli authorities say the six men arrested last weekend were illegally excavating a site known as the Cave of Dead Skulls, located in a region of the Judean Desert called Leopard’s Ascent. The arrests capped a yearlong operation by Israeli authorities aimed at combating looting in the Judean Desert, after scroll fragments believed to have originated there appeared on the local antiquities market. Because of the tremendous value of the ancient artifacts, robbery and looting has a long history in the region, but officials of the Israel Antiquities Authority say this is the first time in decades that looters have been caught red-handed.
In a press release, the Antiquities Authority explained that they discovered the alleged looters only by chance, after search and rescue workers participating in a training exercise in the desert noticed some suspicious movement near one of the caves. Uzi Rotstein, an Israeli antiquities inspector, was one of the workers; he took a long-distance photograph of a cave located on a cliff side, then noticed two men standing by it. Rotstein immediately knew something was off. As he told the Associated Press: “No one has any business being there on a Saturday morning.”
Subsequent surveillance caught the suspects in their excavations and they were apprehended while leaving the cave. In their possession were ancient artifacts, including a 2,000-year-old comb used to remove hair lice, as well as lighting equipment, ropes, metal detectors and food and supplies for several days. Located in the side of the cliff, some 70 meters below the cliff top and 150 feet from the bottom, the cave can only be reached on foot by a narrow, extremely dangerous goat path. According to the Antiquities Authority, the six alleged robbers were all young men from the West Bank village of Seir, near Hebron, and they showed “considerable expertise” in climbing and rappelling down the cliff to reach the cave.
In addition to removing the ancient objects, the alleged looters also dug through and destroyed archaeological strata (or layers of sediment) in the cave that date back some 5,000 years, to the Chalcolithic period. The Antiquities Authority believes the men were on the hunt for more Dead Sea Scrolls, which would of course fetch astronomically high prices on the black market in Israel and around the world. If the men are found guilty of the charges against them—excavating without a license and destroying an antiquities site—they could face up to five years in prison.