Cultural Postcards + [Near East]

Israel: Antiquities robbers caught red-handed in Dead Sea Cave
An indictment was handed up against antiquities robbers who tried to loot Dead Sea scrolls from the Judean Desert. This comes in the wake of a dramatic capture carried out last weekend by inspectors of the Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery of the Israel Antiquities Authority, with the assistance of the Arad Rescue Unit. The apprehension of the robbers was part of a complex operation to locate the Dead Sea scroll robbers, which lasted more than a year.

Antiquities robbers caught red-handed in Dead Sea Cave
The Cave of the Skulls and the damage inside it; members of the Unit for the 
Prevention of Antiquities Robbery on their way to the cave 
[Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority]

Early in the morning hours members of the Arad Rescue Unit, which were undergoing routine training at the time, identified suspicious movement in a cave in the northern cliff of Nahal Ze’elim, in the region of the Leopard’s Ascent.

Inspectors of the Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery of the Israel Antiquities Authority were called to the scene and they placed the cave under surveillance utilizing observation and photographic equipment. The suspects were observed in the cave carrying out an illicit excavation while using a metal detector and a large amount of excavating equipment.

The suspects dug in an ancient cave which is known in archaeological circles as “The Cave of the Skulls”. They caused tremendous damage in the cave by digging through layers of earth while destroying archaeological strata and historical evidence from the Roman period c. 2,000 years ago and the Chalcolithic period c. 5,000 years ago.

The cave is located in the side of the cliff, 150 meters above the bottom of Nahal Ze’elim and some 70 meters below the top of the cliff. It can only be reached on foot via a narrow goat’s path on top of rock fall, that passes upright bedrock walls and is extremely dangerous.

The suspects – all young men from the village of Seir in the vicinity of Hebron – demonstrated considerable expertise in reaching the cave by climbing and rappelling from the cliff while using special equipment they possessed.

After observing and documenting the suspects in action, the suspects began climbing to the top of the cliff during the evening while carrying on their back ancient finds (such as a 2,000 year old lice comb from the Roman period) and all of the digging equipment that included excavation tools, break-in equipment, two sophisticated metal detectors, lighting equipment and ropes, as well as large amounts of food and water, which indicate their intention to remain in the cave for many days. Inspectors of the Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery awaited the suspects at the top of the cliff. Upon arrival the suspects were immediately caught by the Israel Antiquities Authority personnel. They were detained and taken for questioning to the Arad police station where, with the assistance of the Arad police and investigators, they were interrogated for many hours and gave their version of events.

Antiquities robbers caught red-handed in Dead Sea Cave
A Roman-era lice comb found on the suspects 
[Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority]

The suspects were arrested and brought for arraignment before a judge in the Be’er Sheva‘ Magistrates Court. Their detention was extended twice and an indictment was handed up today by the Southern District Attorney's Office.

According to Amir Ganor, director of the Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery in the Israel Antiquities Authority, "For many years now gangs of antiquities robbers have been operating along the Judean Desert cliffs. The robbers attempt to locate and find Dead Sea scrolls, pieces of ancient texts and unique artifacts that were left in the caves, particularly during the Great Revolt against the Romans in 66–70 CE and the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 132–135 CE, when Jewish fighters fearing the Roman army sought refuge in the desert. These finds are sold for large sums of money in the antiquities markets in Israel and around the world. What makes the Judean Desert so unique is its dry climate that enable the preservation of rare leather, bone, and wooden objects, including the Judean Desert scrolls, pieces of parchment and papyrus, on which various texts were written, among them the Holy Scriptures, books of the Bible, legal contracts and historical stories. Over the years many of the plundered finds reached the antiquities markets in Israel and abroad, but it has been decades since perpetrators were caught red-handed. This is mainly due to the difficultly in detecting and catching them on the wild desert cliffs”.

Following the recovery of some unique artifacts that had been plundered by antiquities robbers in this region, the then director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, the late Shuka Dorfman, decided the Judean Desert would receive special treatment, enforcement would be increased and an attempt would be made to identify the caves in which the rare finds were being looted. The task was assigned to the Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery which began operating in the Judean Desert both openly and covertly.

One of the main groups of robbers that operated in the Judean Desert in recent years has now been apprehended. The group was found in possession of unique archaeological relics that had been plundered from the cave. The Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery reported that in the coming weeks additional suspects will be investigated who are connected to the theft and destruction of the antiquities sites in the region.

The Israel Antiquities Authority invests a vast amount of resources and effort in order to safeguard and protect the heritage values of the State

Source: Israel Antiquities Authority [December 07, 2014]