Antiquity thieves caught at Cave of Skulls searching for Dead Sea artefacts

The Cave of the Skulls and the damage inside it. Image: The Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery of the Israel Antiquities Authority

The Cave of the Skulls and the damage inside it. Image: The Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery of the Israel Antiquities Authority

Members of the Arad Rescue Unit, undergoing early morning routine training, noticed suspicious activity in the northern cliff of Nahal Ze’elim, in the region of the Leopard’s Ascent (Judean Desert). After alerting the authorities a group of antiquity thieves searching for Dead Sea scrolls and other potentially valuable artefacts, were caught red-handed.

The “The Cave of the Skulls”, which is located in the side of a cliff, can only be reached on foot via a narrow goat path on top of rock fall, that passes upright bedrock walls and is extremely precarious. The robbers, who had used climbing gear to access the site, were caught with excavation tools, two sophisticated metal detectors, lighting and ropes, as well as large amounts of food and water.

Extensive damage

According to the Israel Antiquity Authority, they have caused extensive damage to the archaeological strata, which covers the Roman period c. 2,000 years ago and the Chalcolithic period c. 5,000 years ago.

Amir Ganor, director of the Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery in the Israel Antiquities Authority,  says that antiquities robbers have been operating in the area for many years, but due to the the remoteness of the sites, they have proved very difficult to catch.

Ganor explained “They are trying to find more Dead Seas Scrolls, or artefacts left in the caves from the Great Revolt against the Romans in 66-70 CE and the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 132-135 CE when Jewish fighters fearing the Roman army, sought refuge in the desert.”

Qumran cave 4, where ninety percent of the scrolls were found. Image: Public Domain

Qumran cave 4, where ninety percent of the scrolls were found. Image: Public Domain

Valuable finds

The director went on to say that these finds can be sold for large sums of money in the antiquities markets in Israel and around the world. What makes the Judean Desert so unique is its dry climate that enable the preservation of rare leather, bone, and wooden objects, including the Judean Desert scrolls, pieces of parchment and papyrus, on which various texts were written, among them the Holy Scriptures, books of the Bible, legal contracts and historical stories.

Over the years many of the plundered finds reached the antiquities markets in Israel and abroad, but it has been decades since perpetrators were caught in the act. This is mainly due to the difficultly in detecting and catching them on the wild desert cliffs.