Police probe leading archeologist

Former BIU department head suspected of illicit antiquities trading.

eshel 88 (photo credit: )
eshel 88
(photo credit: )
In a bizarre case, the former head of the archeology department at Bar-Ilan University is under investigation for illicitly trading in antiquities valued at $1 million, police said Tuesday. Prof. Hanan Eshel and an associate are suspected of a series of antiquities violations after they bought what is believed to be a 1,900-year-old biblical scroll from a Beduin family for $3,000. According to law, any antiquities find must be reported to the Antiquities Authority within 15 days. Eshel told The Jerusalem Post that he bought the scroll, which he was first shown in August 2004, in February after the Beduin put glue on it. Eshel thought this was irreparably damaging the scroll. "The only way to save it was to buy it," he said. After purchasing the scroll, he said he had it photographed at a police lab, a claim police deny. "I bought the scroll to give it to the State of Israel and, instead of thanking me, they are accusing me of trying to steal it, which is nonsense," he said. Eshel maintained he reported the find to the Antiquities Authority a few months after it was shown to him, but that the authority did nothing about it. Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby, however, said that Eshel hid both the discovery of the Bar Kochba-era scroll in a Judean Desert cave and his purchase of it. The Antiquities Authority, subsequently lodged a complaint with the police, which opened an investigation, Ben-Ruby said. During questioning, Eshel reportedly told the police he did not report the find to the Antiquities Authority because he was afraid that "they would steal the credit," Ben-Ruby said. Prof. Aren Maeir, current head of Bar-Ilan's Land of Israel studies and archeology department, accused the Antiquities Authority and police of blowing the case "completely out of proportion." The Antiquities Authority declined comment because of the ongoing police investigation. The three Beduin suspected of involvement in the case were arrested and have been remanded by a military court for allegedly illegally selling antiquities, police said. One of them confessed to selling the scroll to Eshel, considered to be among the country's leading Dead Sea Scroll scholars. Bar-Ilan University spokesman Shmuel Elgrabli insisted that Eshel acted out of "pure academic interests." "Prof. Eshel works day and night to research and reveal the past treasures of the Jewish people and did so as well in this case," he said in a statement. "The university remains convinced that at the end of the investigation it will emerge that Eshel acted innocently and out of pure academic interests." The scroll contains a passage from Leviticus 23-24 dealing with the rules of Succot and is thought to be have been read by Bar Kochba rebels in their caves during the weekly Shabbat Torah reading.