The Israel Antiquities Authority, in cooperation with the Heritage Project in the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs, and together with the Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev, is promoting a national plan for comprehensive archaeological excavations in the Judean Desert caves, to recover some 'Dead Sea Scrolls' before the looters do ('Israel Antiquities Authority Plan To Excavate Judean Desert Caves To Save Scrolls Being Robbed' Yeshiva World Wednesday, May 25th, 2016).
According to Israel Hasson, director-general of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “For years now our most important heritage and cultural assets have been excavated illicitly and plundered in the Judean Desert caves for reasons of greed. The goal of the national plan that we are advancing is to excavate and find all of the scrolls that remain in the caves, once and for all, so that they will be rescued and preserved by the state”. [...] For many years, IAA inspectors have been proactively enforcing the law in the desert, during the course of which they have made a number of seizures and foiled bands of antiquities robbers that sought to become rich through the detrimental exposure of items of great historical importance. However, these actions are a mere drop in the ocean and the Israel Antiquities Authority stresses that only by excavating all of the scrolls in the ground and transferring them to the state, will it be possible to ensure their well-being and preservation for future generations. [...] According to Amir Ganor, director of the IAA’s Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery, “ [...] Despite the rigorous enforcement actions taken against the antiquities robbers, we still witness acts of severe plundering that unfortunately are possible in such large desert expanses. 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 loss of the finds is irreversible damage that cannot be tolerated”.The first excavation in the programme is taking place in the Cave of the Skulls in Nachal Tze’elim. Here in November 2014, inspectors of the IAA’s Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery apprehended a band of robbers, residents of the village Sa‘ir near Hebron, plundering the cave.
The suspects were caught “red-handed”, were arrested on the spot, have been investigated, sentenced and served a prison sentence, and are required to pay the State of Israel a fine of 100,000 NIS. At the time of their arrest they were in possession of important archaeological [material]. In 2009 an ancient papyrus was seized that was written in Hebrew and dates to the Year Four of the Destruction of the House of Israel (139 CE). The papyrus was confiscated in a joint operation by the IAA’s Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery and the Israel Police during a meeting with antiquities dealers in which the papyrus was offered for sale for the amount of 2 million dollars. The investigation of the robbers involved in the affair showed that this papyrus was apparently also discovered in Nachal Tze’elim. The contents of it, which mentions the towns and settlements in the area of the Hebron hill-country, suggests that the papyrus was part of an archive of documents belonging to Jews who fled to the desert from the Hebron area after the Bar Kochba uprising. Now, the Israel Antiquities Authority hopes to find such documents.(the 2014 bust was reported in this blog: Sunday, 7 December 2014, 'Cliff-Hanging Antiquities Bust in Israel'). The current excavation is difficult due to the position of the cave, about 80 meters from the top of the cliff, and c. 250 m above the base of the wadi, requiring special equipment for the team to reach the site. More than 500 volunteers and field personnel from Israel and abroad were required for the undertaking, and they are sleeping and living in a camp in desert field conditions.