Six Palestinians Charged With Illegal Antiquities Dig in Judean Desert

Israeli antiquities officials believe the suspects were searching for undiscovered Dead Sea scrolls to sell on international markets.

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An antiquities inspector outside the cave in which the suspects were digging.
An antiquities inspector outside the cave in which the suspects were digging.Credit: IAA

Six Palestinians from the Hebron region were charged in the Be'er Sheva magistrate's court on Sunday with illegal digging for antiquities.

The men, all of whom come from the West Bank village of Sair, were caught by Israel Antiquities Authority inspectors and Arad police last week while digging in a cave in the Judean Desert.

The cave in which they were digging is known in archaeological circles as “The Cave of the Skulls” and is in the area in which many of the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. The Antiquities Authority believes that the suspects were looking for undiscovered scrolls or other antiquities to sell in the antiquities markets in Israel and around the world.

The arrest of the mean was the culmination of a year-long operation to stop looting in the Judean Desert, thought to be the source of scroll fragments which have recently trickled onto the local antiquities market, said Uzi Rotstein, an Israeli antiquities inspector.

It was the first arrest of suspected antiquities robbers in the Judean Desert in over 30 years.

Rotstein said he spotted the alleged antiquities looters by chance in late November He was in the desert training as a volunteer in a hiker rescue squad when he took a photograph of a far-off cave on the side of a cliff and noticed two men standing by it.

"No one has any business being there on a Saturday morning," said Rotstein.

The suspects had hiked up a cliff and then rappelled 70 meters down to the cave, equipped with digging equipment, excavation tools, two sophisticated metal detectors, lighting equipment and ropes, as well as large amounts of food and water.

They were carrying a 2,000 year old lice comb from the Roman period when caught.

The Antiquities Authority said the men had caused tremendous damage in the cave by digging through layers of earth while destroying archaeological strata and historical evidence from the Roman and Chalcolithic periods (5,000 – 2,000 years ago.)

The Dead Sea Scrolls are the world's oldest biblical manuscripts. Their initial discovery in 1947 was one of the 20th century's greatest archaeological finds.

They are believed to have been left in desert caves during the 1st-century Jewish-Roman war and during the 2nd-century Bar Kochba revolt, when Jewish fighters battling the Roman army sought refuge in the desert.

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