Operation Scroll

Dr. Oren Gutfeld uncovers stolen antiquities near Qumran.

Volunteers at work in the archeological excavation of the cave (photo credit: YOLI SHWARTZ ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)
Volunteers at work in the archeological excavation of the cave
The cave on the cliff west of Qumran in the Judean Desert, where Dr. Oren Gutfeld of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute of Archeology and his colleague Dr. Randall Price from Liberty University in Virginia were digging, was not all that large. A mere three meters by five meters, it had two niches on either side and a small tunnel in the back.
Already after having cleared the space from modern-day earth and dust, they had discovered that the cave floor was covered with a mattress of ancient palm fronds and Second Temple period pottery sherds were scattered about. In this cave south of Wadi Qumran, they also uncovered dozens of organic finds such as olive and date pits, seeds of various kinds and fragments of rope all from that same period.
Exciting finds ‒ especially because of their excellent state of preservation thanks to the dry and warm desert air ‒ but nothing all that unique for archeologists working in the Judean Desert.
Still, after having just finished a small and unsuccessful excavation earlier that season ‒ in November last year ‒ outside the Twin Caves opposite Kibbutz Kalia, any finds in this second excavation were more than welcomed by the team.
As part of the excavation, a Beduin worker named Yousef Ta’amireh from the Ta’amireh tribe — the very same tribe of the legendary young Beduin shepherd who, according to the telling of the Dead Sea Scrolls story, found the original first set of scrolls in these mountainous caves — started working to remove a large rock from the cave’s eastern niche.
Observing the work in progress, Gutfeld moved closer to get a better look and realized that this was not just a random rock that had fallen in the niche, but a very large rock that someone, or several people, had placed intentionally along the wall to hide something.
Thrilled by this realization, Gutfeld himself grabbed a pickax and began digging. After a few minutes of work, he discovered the broken sherds of a complete storage jar lying underneath. Then, as if from nowhere, an ancient parchment rolled out in front of him.
“I was speechless,” says Gutfeld now, sitting in his lab at the university’s archeology institute. Even several months later, the headiness of the event still sends chills up his spine. “I wanted to call my assistant but I couldn’t talk. It was a very rare, very exciting find.”
Using a special “Dead Sea Scroll kit,” which they never expected to use but which nevertheless had been prepared for them by Miriam Lavie, head of the Hebrew University’s Archeology Institute’s preservation laboratory, they carefully readied the scroll for transport. The kit consisted of a set of rubber gloves and silk gloves each, a special storage box lined with silk and a pair of tweezers. Gutfeld very gently picked up the scroll with the tweezers, wrapped it up, placed it in the container and took it directly to Jerusalem to their preservation lab. From there, it made its way to the Dead Sea Scrolls preservation lab of the Israel Antiquities Authority, where it remains.
However, examination of the parchment proved puzzling; when the scroll was opened and scanned, the ancient parchment was completely blank.
“Maybe it was a parchment prepared for use, but then why hide it? Maybe the writing on the scroll disappeared. But this is Qumran where you find strange things,” Gutfeld says. During the early excavations of the Dead Sea caves in the 1950s by Dominican Father Roland De Vaux, director of the French École Biblique et Archeologique in East Jerusalem, which was under Jordanian control, Gutfeld notes that an enormous storage jar with an intact lid was found hidden inside a landfill, but, again, it was empty. “It is an enigmatic and strange question, all of these matters, “ he says.
The next stage for Gutfeld and his team was to begin excavating the tunnel in the back ‒ a narrow, five-meter passageway. They crawled inside and carefully began excavating; as they dug, it became longer and longer and they finally hit bedrock at about 15-17 meters.
Along the way, they found large amounts of more of the same organic materials they had discovered inside the cave, as well as two leather strips normally used to tie scrolls together, with a lot of broken pottery sherds nearby. Then they found 15 small pieces of textiles normally used to wrap up scrolls. Behind a big rock in the tunnel, they found the remains of four huge broken jars with lids. All of these remains have been dated to the 1st century CE when the community at Qumran was active.
But there were also some less than ancient finds ‒ two rusted pickax heads lay there among the shattered remains. Ta’amireh took one look and immediately identified them as being the type that belonged to his tribe 50 or 60 years ago.
“It was a big disappointment. We understood that [the antiquities thieves] had been there before us and gotten the scrolls,” says Gutfeld. “At least they left the textiles.”
Although any scrolls that may have been kept in the storage jars were lost, their excavation did uncover the broken sherds of seven to eight complete storage jars that will be meticulously put together, at least four to five lids, two strips of leather used to tie the scrolls, and 15 fragments of textile scroll wrappings. They also retrieved tendons and pieces of skin connecting fragments and finds dating back to the Chalcolithic and Neolithic periods. In addition, they unovered a piece of folded papyrus, which, after analysis by Dr. Elizabeta Boaretto at the Weizmann Institute of Technology, also turned out to be blank.
“There was no writing on the papyrus either, which is also a mystery. As an archeologist, I will be remembered for finding blank scrolls,” Gutfeld chuckles. “But a rolled parchment is also something.”
It was the first time in more than 60 years that a new scroll cave had been discovered and properly excavated. Careful not to disclose the location of the cave, Gutfeld says the findings are important because of their location south of the Qumran Wadi, whereas the other excavated caves were to the north. He plans to return to the cave this November.
“Maybe there are more caves to the south of the Qumran Wadi that need to be checked more carefully,” he says. “This is the closest we’ve come to discovering new Dead Sea Scrolls in 60 years. Until now, it was accepted that Dead Sea Scrolls were found only in 11 caves at Qumran, but now there is no doubt that this is the 12th cave. The findings indicate beyond any doubt that the cave contained scrolls that were stolen.”
Another intriguing aspect of the cave, he says, is that they found so much evidence that it also may have been used as a place of lodging or refuge, whereas most of the other caves seemed to be have been used solely for storage purposes.
“Here we have evidence that people lived in the cave ‒ there are baskets, ropes, olive pits and organic mattresses,” he says. “Maybe it was for seasonal use, or to write the scrolls. It is a bit different from the other [caves].”
This Hebrew University Institute of Archeology excavation, supported by the Civil Administration (because of its location in contested territory over the Green Line), the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), was the first excavation to take place in the northern part of the Judean Desert as part of the IAA’s new national “Operation Scroll” project. Launched in an effort to thwart aniquity thieves, it aims to undertake systematic surveys and excavations of the caves in the Judean Desert, which are prime targets for antiquities theft because of their remote location.
Operation Scroll is being conducted in cooperation with the Heritage Project in the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry and Culture and Sports Ministry.
In the wake of the Oslo Accords 24 years ago, the IAA conducted a similar “Operation Scroll” project just before Israel turned Jericho over to the newly established Palestinian Authority. Concerned that Israel would soon be handing over the entire part of the northern Judean Desert, the surveys were done in haste and nothing of significance was found. It was during that time that Gutfeld’s cave, then called Cave 53 ‒ now referred to as Q12 linking it to the other 11 caves in the Dead Sea Scrolls complex of caves ‒ was initially surveyed and a quick two-day probe was carried out.
Gutfeld, who had already taken part in several Judean Desert area excavations, later read the IAA report, including the description of a tunnel at the end of the cave and the findings intrigued him.
The idea of the current Operation Scrolls project is not to excavate all the caves, but to carry out thorough surveys of the cliff area ‒ something that can take years ‒ and select 10-15 percent for excavations, says Gutfeld.
“The presence of the excavations will reduce the possibility of Beduin antiquities theft,” he says. “If we don’t do it, they [the thieves] will. They have been doing it for many years. In a way, we are still in a race that started in 1947. It’s a race, but they won big time and, if we don’t do anything now, they will win again.”
Israel Hasson, director general of the IAA, said in an IAA press release he believes there are finds of “huge importance” still waiting to be discovered. “We are in a race against time as the antiquities thieves steal heritage assets worldwide for financial gain. The State of Israel needs to mobilize and allocate the necessary resources to launch a historic operation, together with the public, to carry out a systematic excavation of all the caves of the Judean Desert,” he said.
Despite their stringent efforts to prevent theft, the only way to truly preserve and protect the ancient artifacts still hidden in the desert caves is to carry out professional excavations and transfer the finds to Israeli THE JERUSALEM REPORT JUNE 26, 2017 25 authorities to ‘ensure their well-being and preservation for future generations.’” Although located in a politically contested area whose future sovereignty may still be unclear, Gutfeld says it is now the “responsibility and obligation” of archeologists to prevent looting of the caves and professionally research the findings.
“We do research. We are not involved in politics,” Gutfeld says. “Politicians decide what [political] course to take.”
Antiquities thieves do irreparable harm to archeological sites by recklessly digging through the archeological layers, destroying any possibility for archeologists to come later and determine the dates and original locations of some of the finds.
The new excavations are even more imperative because, over the past five or six years, the IAA’s Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery has become aware of new fragments of Roman and Iron Period Dead Sea Scrolls appearing on the antiquities black market, which indicates active antiquities-theft rings in the area.
The original Dead Sea Scrolls are also believed to have been plundered from these caves and were purchased on the black market by Israeli scholars in 1947. In later years, additional scrolls also showed up on the black market. Four more were bought clandestinely by famed Israeli archeologist and the IDF’s second chief of staff, Yigal Yadin, through an intermediary in the United States, after Jerusalem’s Syrian Orthodox Archbishop placed a sales advertisement in the Wall Street Journal. The archbishop had smuggled the scrolls to New Jersey in 1949 fearing they could be damaged in the fighting during Israel’s War of Independence. Other scrolls were uncovered during excavations in the then-Jordanian held West Bank led by De Vaux.
To date, the entire known Dead Sea Scrolls cache includes some 1,000 ancient Jewish texts, including some of the earliest known copies of Biblical texts written in either Aramaic or ancient Hebrew, all dating to the Second Temple period.
A year ago, the IAA announced the first steps of Operation Scroll by starting a complicated archeological excavation in search of new scrolls in Nahal Tze’elim in the Cave of Skulls, so named because of the seven skulls and other skeletal remains discovered there by Prof. Yohanan Aharoni in 1960.
Despite its location in one of the harshest areas of the Judean Desert on a steep cliff on the northern back of the Tze’elim stream, in November 2014, inspectors of the IAA’s Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery caught a band of antiquity thieves ‒ residents of the village of Sa’ir near Hebron ‒ redhanded plundering the contents of the Cave of Skulls.
Professionals in their own right, the thieves needed to have considerable climbing and excavation expertise to reach the cave by climbing and rappelling from the cliff while using specialized equipment. No longer just depending on pickaxes, the thieves were caught using a metal detector and excavation equipment to search for antiquities. When they were confronted by the IAA inspectors, the thieves were in possession of important artifacts that dated back to the Roman period, some 2,000 years ago, and the Neolithic period some 8,000 years ago. The thieves were arrested, tried and given a prison sentence. They also were fined $28,200 (NIS 100,000).
In 2009, an ancient papyrus with Hebrew writing dating back to 139 CE during the period of the Bar Kokhba uprising, was confiscated in a joint operation by the IAA’s Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery and the Israel Police during a meeting with antiquities dealers who had been offering the papyrus for sale for $2 million. The joint investigation revealed that this papyrus had also most likely been discovered in Nahal Tze’elim. The papyrus mentioned the names of towns and settlements in the Hebron Hills area. Archeologists believe this suggests that the papyrus was part of an archive of documents belonging to Jews who fled to the desert from the Hebron area following the Bar Kokhba uprising.
A team from the IAA’s Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery accompanied by researchers from the Caves Research Center of the Hebrew University and hundreds of volunteers participated in the 2016 excavations at the Cave of the Skulls. Its remote locale required a special permit from the Nature and Parks Authority to construct an access trail and use of rappelling equipment. Not bogged down by such requirements, antiquities thieves can work quickly to reach such remote areas.
So far, the finds in this cave have been small but promising, such as fragments of leather, ropes, textiles, wooden objects including a wooden lice comb, bone tools, pottery sherds, stone vessels and flint items. More fragments of Dead Sea Scrolls were also found in the cave but were very small and the writing so faded it was hard to make out even what language they were written in without analysis. Another most intriguing find is a bundle of wrapped beads ‒ the third such collection to be found ‒ dating to the prehistoric Chalcolithic period.
“Despite the rigorous enforcement actions taken against the antiquities robbers, we still witness acts of severe plundering that, unfortunately, are possible in such large desert expanses,” said Amir Ganor, director of the IAA’s Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery.
“There are hundreds of caves in the cliffs in the area, access to which is both dangerous and challenging. In almost every cave that we examined, we found evidence of illicit intervention and it is simply heartbreaking. The loss of the finds is irreversible damage that can’t be tolerated.”