The Qumran Caves in the Judean Desert (image via Wikimedia)

Six Palestinians were indicted in an Israeli court with illegal digging for antiquities on December 7, Haaretz reported. A release issued by the Israel Antiquities Authority stated they were caught in early December allegedly “carrying out an illicit excavation” in the arid Judean Desert.

The organization claims the Palestinians had hiked up a cliff and rappelled 230 feet to enter the “Cave of the Skulls,” where many Dead Sea scrolls have been discovered. They were caught by chance after an Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) inspector noticed two men standing inside the cave in late November, when he was training as a volunteer in a hiker rescue squad. The IAA subsequently placed the cave under watch to confirm illegal activity. The Arad police then arrested the individuals as they were returning to the surface. The alleged looters, who came from the West Bank village of Sair in the Hebron region, were carrying excavation equipment, metal detectors, and artifacts including a 2,000-year-old lice comb. The IAA said their digging caused “tremendous damage” in the cave, destroying layers of archaeological strata from the Roman and earlier Chalcolithic periods.

The arrests marked the first time looters have been apprehended in the region in more than 30 years, as well as the climax of a year-long operation to stop looting in the Judean Desert, the suspected source of scroll fragments appearing in local antiquities markets. This surge has been driven, in part, by the increasing value of biblical artifacts. The evangelical Christian college Asuza Pacific University purchased five Dead Sea scroll fragments and other objects in 2009 for $2.5 million. The “Copper Scroll” is worth close to $3 billion.

The case is overshadowed by the fact that the Judean Desert has been at the heart of a decades-long battle over cultural antiquities between Israel and Palestine. The scrolls were preserved in Qumran caves by Jewish rebel fighters in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD; those formations are now located on the Palestinian side of the border that divides Israel from Palestine.

The original Dead Sea scrolls themselves have a murky history. It was a Bedouin shepherd who first discovered the first cache of scrolls in 1947. He sold some of them to a Palestinian antiquities dealer named Khalil Eskander Shahin, known as “Kando,” who passed them to the Assyrian Orthodox archbishop. After he smuggled them into the US and advertised their sale in a Wall Street Journal ad, the Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin purchased them.

Scholars spent the next decade excavating the area and depositing the scrolls they found at the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum in east Jerusalem, then part of Jordan. During the 1967 war, Israeli authorities seized the museum’s scrolls and also briefly imprisoned Kando on suspicion of holding more scrolls. After he revealed that he did possess one (now known as the Temple Scroll), he sold it to them for $125,000. He did manage to spirit away the rest of his collection into a Swiss safe deposit box, which his family just began selling off last year — much to Israel’s chagrin. The scrolls’ only address is the State of Israel,” Amir Ganor, head of the authority’s anti-looting squad, told The Daily Mail.

Similarly, many Palestinians were angered by the Royal Ontario Museum’s collaboration with the Israel Antiquities Authority to host an exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 2010. “[It] would entail exhibiting or displaying artifacts removed from the Palestinian territories,” Hamdan Taha, head of the archaeological department in the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism & Antiquities, wrote in a public letter.

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Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...

One reply on “Israel Indicts Palestinians for Antiquities Looting”

  1. If the Dead Sea Scrolls had been discovered by the same folk in 2014 rather than in 1946 they almost certainly would have been destroyed.

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