Saving the Dead Sea Scrolls from Looters, Hundreds Flock to Desert Caves

Excavation Volunteers at the Cave of Skulls in the Judean Desert 24.5.16 Photo by Yoli Shwartz, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Saving the Dead Sea Scrolls from Looters, Hundreds Flock to Desert Caves

Written by Michael Bachner/TPS on May 25, 2016

Judean Desert (TPS) – An extraordinary archaeological excavation has been going on in Israel for over a week now, with more than 500 volunteers from Israel and abroad sleeping and living in a camp in desert field conditions – this, in an attempt to save priceless as-yet undiscovered fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which include the oldest surviving manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, from being looted.

The complex excavation kicks off a national plan to conduct comprehensive archaeological excavations in the Judean Desert caves in order to extract and preserve the scrolls from antiquities looters.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are among the most important archeological finds ever unearthed – a collection of hundreds of biblical and apocalyptic texts in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek discovered between the years 1946-1956 in the Qumran Caves near the Dead Sea. They were written and collected over 2,000 years ago by a mysterious Jewish separatist sect that, obsessed with purity and apocalyptic visions, moved into an outpost of desert caves overlooking the Dead Sea. The scrolls date back to the last three centuries BCE and the first century CE and are among the earliest extant texts written in the Hebrew language – including the oldest available copies of biblical books.

The excavation is taking place at the Cave of Skulls in the Tze’elim Stream, located near the Masada fortress. Due the difficulty in reaching the site, an access trail requiring the use of rappelling equipment has been constructed after obtaining a special permit. The excavation is expected to end in two weeks, depending on its success.

“It is exciting to see the extraordinary work of the volunteers in complicated field conditions, due to their desire to join this historic undertaking and discover findings that can provide priceless information about our past here,” said Israel Hasson, Director-General of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). “After all, the Dead Sea scrolls are of religious, political, and historical importance to Jews, Christians and all of humanity”.

Several attempts to plunder the contents of the Cave of Skulls have been thwarted in the past. The most recent case occurred when a group of Palestinian robbers were caught in action in 2014. They were sentenced to a prison term after ancient important archaeological artifacts were found in their possession.

The excavation is conducted by archaeologists Dr. Eitan Klein, Dr. Uri Davidovich, Royee Porat and Amir Ganor, accompanied by researchers from the Hebrew University and by the hundreds of volunteers.

“The excavation at the Tze’elim Stream is an operation of extraordinary complexity and scope, and one that has not occurred in the Judean Desert in the past thirty years,” said Amir Ganor. “There are hundreds of caves in 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 heart-breaking.”

The plan has been promoted by the IAA, in cooperation with the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and with Culture Minister Miri Regev.

“The antiquity robbers are plundering the land’s history and we cannot allow that,” said Regev. “The Dead Sea scrolls are an exciting testament of paramount importance that bears witness to the existence of Israel in this land 2,000 years ago. It is our duty to protect these unique treasures, which belong to the Jewish people and to the entire world. I will work to increase the punishment against those that rob our country’s antiquities.”

Over the years, inspectors have arrested antiquities robbers who attempted to steal some of the scrolls. However, the IAA said in a statement that “only by excavating all of the scrolls in the ground and transferring them to the state, will it be possible to ensure their preservation for future generations.”

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