The Israel Antiquities Authority is promoting a national plan for comprehensive archaeological excavations in the Judean Desert caves, and for rescuing the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are among the earliest texts written in the Hebrew language. The plan is carried out in cooperation with the Heritage Project in the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs, and Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev (Likud).I had always thought that the Yadin-Aharoni-Aviram-Bar-Adon expedition, which was aided by the IDF, had recovered all significant archives of ancient scrolls in the Judean Desert back in the early 1960s. Since then only scraps have been found here and there. But this story makes me wonder if the IAA knows something I don't. I hope so.
Israel Hasson, director-general of the IAA, said in a statement, “Tor 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.”
In November 2014, inspectors of the IAA’s Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery apprehended a band of robbers, residents of the village of Sa‘ir near Hebron, in the act of plundering the contents of the Cave of the Skulls in Nahal Tse’elim. The suspects who were caught “red-handed” were arrested on the spot, interrogated, and later sentenced and served a prison sentence, and are required to pay the State of Israel a fine of $25,000. At the time of their arrest they were in possession of important archaeological artifacts that date to the Roman period, c. 2,000 years ago, and the Neolithic period, c. 8,000 years ago.The Cave of Skulls (Camp B, Cave 32) was explored by Aharoni's team, but it had already been plundered by the Bedouin before the archaeologists got there. The archaeologists found no scrolls or scroll fragments. Apart from the disarticulated bodies of some hapless participants in the Bar Kokhba revolt (which gave the cave its name), nothing very significant was recovered from it. Some of the "Seiyal Collection" of unprovenanced scrolls may have come from Nahal Tse’elim (Se'elim). It is conceivable that some of them even could have come from the Cave of Skulls, although there is no positive evidence for that.
In 2009 an ancient papyrus that was written in Hebrew and dates to the Year Four of the Destruction of the House of Israel (139 CE) was seized. 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. The investigation of the robbers revealed that this papyrus had also been discovered in Nahal Tse’elim. The contents of it, which mention the towns and settlements in the area of the Hebron hill-country, suggest 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 Kokhba uprising. Now, the IAA hopes to find similar documents.
The Cave of Skulls, where the excavation is taking place, is located about 80 yards from the top of the cliff, and about 750 ft above the base of the canyon. Because of the difficulty in reaching the site, the IAA obtained a special permit from the Nature and Parks Authority to construct an access trail, which requires the use of rappelling equipment for the safety of the participants in the excavation. 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. Many requests by individuals offering to participate have been denied because of the lack of infrastructure to provide for such a large group of archaeologists, volunteers and interested parties. The current excavation season will end in another two weeks, assuming this will be sufficient time in order to extract the valuable archaeological information from the cave.
But now there seem to be new developments. I wonder if an internal cave-in or the like could have opened up a new passage containing additional artifacts. That is pure speculation, so don't quote me. But the important thing is that the IAA has hopes of finding more in what one would have thought was a doubly (or now even triply) cleaned-out cave. That is exciting news and I hope they are successful.