No Gold in Them Hills

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The Haruba archaeological site near Modi'in is famous because it is mentioned in what is known as the Copper Scroll - the only one of the Dead Sea Scrolls that was engraved on copper instead of parchment. The ancient document is in fact a kind of puzzle relating to the whereabouts of the legendary treasures of the holy Temple in Jerusalem.

One night about two weeks ago, five suspected antiquities robbers were caught at Haruba. The treasures ostensibly hidden there in ancient days, as reported in the scroll, were not found in their possession. However, while they rummaged about, the robbers did uncover a nearby mikveh (ritual bath ) dating to the Second Temple period that was previously unknown to scholars.

The mystery trenches at Haruba. Credit: Israel Antiquities Authority

Inspectors from the Israel Antiquities Authority first spotted six people digging in the antiquities site of Khirbat Regev, which is also not far from Modi'in, and using a metal-detector to find ancient coins. Afterward, the diggers - with the inspectors secretly following them - moved on to the Haruba site, where they hid in a cave. A scuffle ensued during which five would-be robbers were apprehended and a sixth got away.

The suspects are Palestinians from the village of Beit Ula in the Hebron region, men in their 30s, some of them known to the IAA because of previous offenses. IAA officials found that the suspects' excavation caused damage to the sites they were attempting to loot.

"The discovery of the mikveh could have been an important contribution from a research standpoint, but its exposure by uncontrolled digging, involving destruction of archaeological strata in the process, led to a loss of information," says Amir Ganor, director of the IAA's robbery prevention division.

At the Haruba site the robbers apparently damaged trenches used as hiding places during the Bar Kochba rebellion. The site has attracted treasure hunters over the years because of the way Haruba is described in the Copper Scroll, which begins with the words: "In the ruin that is in the valley of Achor, under / the steps, with the entrance at the East, / a distance of 40 cubits: a strongbox of silver and its vessels / with a weight of 17 talents."

Many scholars actually believe there is nothing to hunt for at Haruba. A study conducted about a decade ago by the late Prof. Hanan Eshel and by Ze'ev Safrai, both of Bar-Ilan University's Land of Israel department, estimated the total weight of the silver and gold treasures as described in the scroll to be 100 tons, in the form of some 4,500 bars. This unfathomable amount has led experts to the supposition that the scroll is not talking about actual treasures.

Like the rest of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Copper Scroll was found in the 1950s in the Qumran caves in the northern Judean Desert. It contains a list of 60 of the Temple treasures, and rather cryptically indicates where each was hidden. The scroll, which is 2.40 meters long and about 30 centimeters wide, dates from the 1st century C.E. Because at the time of its discovery the northern Judean Desert belonged to Jordan, it is on display at the Jordan Museum in Amman.

"There are all sorts of speculations about the reasons this scroll was written," says Shai Bar-Tura, deputy director of the IAA's robbery prevention division. "The most likely theory, perhaps, was raised by Prof. Hanan Eshel. He argued that this scroll [like the other Dead Sea Scrolls] was written by members of the Essene sect - people who followed a very extreme interpretation of Jewish law, and who settled in the Qumran region, where they lived in isolated fashion. To their mind, worship in the Temple did not meet the criterion of religious purity that they sought to maintain. Eshel contended that they wrote the scroll to strengthen their separatist stance vis-a-vis the religious establishment of the period."

Despite the vagueness of the Copper Scroll's language, most of the hiding places mentioned in it are indeed in the region between Qumran and the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem. And in fact, there is a settlement called "Haruva" in the Qumran region. So, although Haruba near Modi'in was a key Jewish settlement in the Second Temple era, but contemporary scholars do not believe it has anything to do with the mysterious Temple treasures.