In Israel, Archaeologists and Looters Race to Acquire a Piece of History
The moment when the Book of the Twelve Minor Prophets scroll was discovered in Muraba‘at Cave. (Highlight Films, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

In Israel, Archaeologists and Looters Race to Acquire a Piece of History

The new Dead Sea Scrolls discovery reflects the latest showdown between the two groups

In a country where half of the land is considered an ancient historical site, archaeologists and illegal excavators are engaged in a very public race to see who can get their hands on artifacts first.

The first Dead Sea Scrolls finding in nearly six decades, announced March 16 by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), marks a major victory for archaeologists.

Through the most recent operation, the Israeli archeologists and researchers were able to reach the artifacts buried in a cave in the Judean Desert before they could be discovered and taken away by looters, Joe Uziel, head of the Dead Sea Scrolls unit at the IAA, told The Media Line. In addition, they “found them in their original context,” he said.

The discovery includes parchment fragments of biblical scrolls of the 12 minor prophets, particularly the books of Zechariah and Nahum, written in ancient Greek. Also discovered in the cave, dubbed the “Cave of Horrors” because it was only reachable by rappelling down a sheer cliff, were a 6,000-year-old skeleton of a child and a large, complete basket dating back 10,500 years, likely the oldest in the world.

The Judean Desert, Uziel said, is a hotbed for relic theft because the climate preserves items in a way that would be impossible elsewhere.

The Dead Sea Scrolls in particular highlight the competition between archaeologists and bandits.

The first Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947 when looters went into a cave and accidentally found them, Uziel said, though most historical accounts say a young shepherd boy made the initial discovery. “Then, afterwards, throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, there was a sort of race between looters and the archaeologists to try to get to the caves first. A lot of the times, the looters got there first,” he said.

This problem increased during the last year, probably because many people were unemployed so they started to look for antiquities in order to sell them

Prof. Noam Mizrahi, senior lecturer in the Bible Department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem disagrees with this characterization of illegal excavationists, particularly those who found the Dead Sea Scrolls.

“I’m not sure they would define themselves as bandits, that already reflects the point of view of the establishment,” he told The Media Line. “The first Dead Sea Scrolls were found by Bedouin shepherds accidentally and once people understood that it was a genuine discovery, shepherds and other people went to the Judean Desert to see if there were more findings of this kind, which they did find,” he said.

Archaeologists say that it is crucial to get to the artifacts first in order find them in as undisturbed a manner as possible.

Part of the Book of the Twelve Minor Prophets scroll found in the Cave of Horrors in the Judean Desert, written in Greek. (Shai Halevi/Israel Antiquities Authority)

In the case of the most recent discovery, the artifacts were found in a cave that was excavated by archaeologists after unauthorized digging.

“Once the archaeological context is disturbed, then huge amounts of information is lost forever,” Mizrahi said. “In archaeological contexts, we always have hints in the story of the deposition, and the story of the deposition tells us a lot about the society and the culture of the time.”

“This is really why there is a kind of a race because archaeologists learn a lot from the context in which these scrolls and other items” are resting, he added.

Still, the new find was undisturbed enough to give archaeologists an idea of when the scrolls were left in the cave.

“Let’s say we take the finds and do special analysis to date them, like radiocarbon dating, that would date the scroll but it wouldn’t tell us when it was deposited in the cave and that’s an important part of the story,” Uziel said.

“We haven’t dated using radiocarbon, but we know paleographically according to the types of letters that it dates to some one hundred years earlier from the place that it was found,” Uziel said. “It was taken there by rebels who were escaping the Roman army and were hiding and basically waiting for the day that they could come back out.”

“That tells us a lot about how important the scroll was to these people because if you take a look at what people need or stress, they take with them what’s very important,” he said.

Illegal excavations are such a problem in Israel that the IAA has an entire unit dedicated to stopping unauthorized digs.

The issue predates the establishment of the state of Israel and is only getting worse, according to Dr. Eitan Klein, deputy director of the antiquities theft prevention unit at the IAA.

Klein noted that the IAA inspectors, who are authorized to act under the law like police officers, find about 300 cases of looting each year in Israel.

“This problem increased during the last year, probably because many people were unemployed so they started to look for antiquities in order to sell them,” he told The Media Line.

Israel’s antiquities law was established in 1978, an offshoot of a law against the practice established during the British mandate, which establishes that every artifact belongs to the Jewish state. The  law also prohibits the use of metal detectors, excavation on ancient sites and exports of any relics found on ancient sites without a permit

Ancient sites are established when an archeologist from the IAA goes into an area and finds vestiges of a historical object or location for the first time, after which the coordinates are reported to the authority. Once confirmed as an antiquity, the coordinates of the site are published.

“In Israel, we have more than 35,000 ancient sites without the West Bank and each year we find more,” Klein said. “Actually, half of the country, the state of Israel, is an ancient site.”

Once the archaeological context is disturbed, then huge amounts of information is lost forever

The punishment for illegal excavation is a fine and/or up to five years in jail, but Klein says the courts usually issue a sentence of one year to two years.

The deputy director says the battle against looting takes place on a variety of fronts.

“We are fighting it in many directions, we call it the ‘Israeli combined method for fighting against illicit trafficking of antiquities and looting,’” Klein said.

He says that actions need to be taken “against the looters in the field to catch them during illegal excavation; against the middleman, the person who takes the artifact from the looter and bring it to the antiquities dealer; against the dealers – most of the time it’s illegal to trade in these kinds of antiquities.”

“Another fight is the smuggling of antiquities,” Klein added. “You need to have people at the borders of the state and also internationally. We are looking also at auctions and private collections abroad to see if something that was stolen in Israel somehow succeeded in leaving the country.”

The deputy director takes the work of his unit in stride.

“If we are catching 60 groups of looters each year and we get our hands on hundreds of illegal antiquities each year, to me it seems we are doing a good job, but still there is much to do,” he said.

Today, according to Uziel, archaeologists are engaged in a different race with illegal excavators than they were when the Dead Sea Scrolls were first found.

“It’s a different type of competition because right now we are trying to prevent looting completely, we are not trying to get to any specific find, A or B.,” Uziel said. Although along the way archeologists do discover amazing things like the recent Dead Sea Scrolls discovery, “the main idea is to create a presence in the Judean Desert to prevent future looting,” he said.


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