Israel Antiquities Authority accuses gang of thieves of trying to plunder Dead Sea Scrolls

This is the first time in 30 years that antiquities thieves have been caught on the cliffs, IAA said.

The Cave of  the Skulls in the Judean Desert (photo credit: IAA)
The Cave of the Skulls in the Judean Desert
(photo credit: IAA)
Following a one year investigation, an indictment was served Sunday to thieves who attempted to loot Dead Sea scrolls from the Judean Desert, the Antiquities Authority announced.
The indictment comes in the wake of a dramatic arrest carried out last weekend by inspectors of the authority’s Antiquities Robbery Prevention Unit with the assistance of the Arad Rescue Unit, it said.
According to the authority, during the morning hours, members of the Arad Rescue Unit identified suspicious movement in a cave in the northern cliff of Nahal Tze’elim, in the region of Ma’ale Namer.
Inspectors from the Antiquities Robbery Prevention Unit were then called to the scene, at which time they placed the cave under surveillance utilizing observation and photographic equipment, the authority said in a statement.
( 2,000 year old lice comb from the Roman period.)
The thieves were then 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 that is known in archeological circles as ‘the Cave of Skulls,’” the statement said. “They caused tremendous damage in the cave by digging through layers of earth while destroying archeological strata and historical evidence from the Roman period circa 2,000 years ago and the Chalcolithic [Copper] period circa 5,000 years ago.”
The cave is located in the side of the precipice, 150 m. above the bottom of Nahal Tze’elim and some 70 m.
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 authority said.
“The suspects – all young men from the village of Si’ir 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,” the statement continued.
The Antiquities Authority officials then observed the suspects climbing to the top of the cliff during the evening, while carrying ancient finds in their backpacks, including a 2,000-year-old lice comb from the Roman Period, as well as sophisticated digging equipment, the authority said.
“Inspectors from the Antiquities Robbery Prevention Unit awaited the suspects at the top of the cliff,” the statement said. “Upon arrival, the suspects were immediately caught by Antiquities Authority personnel. They were detained and taken for questioning to the Arad police station where, with the assistance of Arad police and investigators, they were interrogated for many hours and gave their version of events.”
The suspects were subsequently arrested and brought for arraignment before a judge in the Beersheba Magistrate’s Court and their detention was extended twice prior to being served an indictment Sunday by the Southern District Attorney’s Office, the authority said.
“For many years now gangs of antiquities robbers have been operating along the Judean Desert cliffs,” said Amir Ganor, director of the Antiquities Robbery Prevention Unit. “The robbers attempted 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.”
Ganor said these finds are sold for large sums of money in the antiquities markets in Israel and around the world.
According to the Antiquities Authority, the Judean Desert’s dry climate enables the preservation of rare leather, bone and wooden objects, including scrolls, pieces of parchment and papyrus on which various texts were written, including 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,” the Antiquities Authority said. “This is mainly due to the difficultly in detecting and catching them on the wild desert cliffs.”
Excavating antiquities sites without a license and destroying an antiquities site constitute severe violations of the law, punishable by up to five years in prison, the Antiquities Authority said.