Before dawn on June 6, the members of a small squad from the Israel Antiquities Authority rappelled to the bottom of an ancient well, crawled through a narrow entrance into a 2,000-year-old horizontal tunnel and surprised two men scouring the passageway for artifacts.

The men, Palestinians from the West Bank, were cornered. They gave themselves up without a fight.

The incident followed another arrest, this one in February, by Antiquities Authority officers of five illegal diggers hiding in a cave in the same area — part of a notable rise in activity by antiquities thieves in the hills around Modi’in, a burgeoning but sleepy commuter city of 80,000 known more for clean parks than for ancient artifacts and tomb raiders.

“There is no doubt that we have seen an increase in the number of antiquities sites being damaged in the Modi’in area,” said Shai Bar-Tura, an officer with the Antiquities Authority unit that combats theft.

Suggested reasons for the increase include the construction of the West Bank security barrier in other areas once popular with antiquities thieves; a greater public awareness of the wealth of archaeological finds in the hills near Modi’in, which are full of the remains of 2,000-year-old villages and warrens of escape tunnels dating to the Jewish revolts against Rome; and even — perhaps fancifully — a connection to a mysterious treasure map in one of the most cryptic of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The precise details of the nighttime ambush and arrest on June 6 have not been made public to protect the unit’s methods and personnel. But Bar-Tura said a ranger who was in the area that night spotted an indication — a broken stick, for example, or a stone that was not in precisely the same place it had been before — that tipped him off that there were diggers in the tunnel.

“Just as the robbers know their work, finding artifacts, we know our work,” Bar-Tura said. “If that means sneaking up on them, we do it. If that means ambushing them, jumping on them physically and cuffing them, we do it.”

The entrance to an unmarked subterranean passage at Haruba -- a site outside Modiin that some think may be connected to a guide to buried treasure found with the Dead Sea Scrolls (Photo: Matti Friedman)

The entrance to an unmarked subterranean passage at Haruba -- a site outside Modiin that some think may be connected to a guide to buried treasure found with the Dead Sea Scrolls (Photo: Matti Friedman)

The tomb raiders are nearly always West Bank Palestinians. Many are from the same four villages around Hebron, and from families that have been in the same trade for generations: The fragments of the ancient past have been a profitable industry in the Holy Land for centuries, fueled by Western money and fascination with physical traces of the Bible.

They know the territory and are familiar enough with history to know what sells and where to find it. They come with metal detectors, and hide every artifact immediately — that way, if the antiquities officers show up it won’t be on their person and can be retrieved later. They often remain in an area for days, digging at night and hiding in caves or tunnels in daylight. What they find — artifacts might range from a simple clay lamp worth $20 to coins worth hundreds of thousands of dollars — is sold to middlemen, and then on to the booming trade, legal and otherwise, in biblical antiquities. Bar-Tura estimates that there are perhaps 100 people who loot antiquities sites full-time.

On the other side is the government’s Antiquities Authority Theft Prevention Unit, which numbers 11 people.

The Modi’in area is not home to any one singularly spectacular excavation, and thus does not register on the public’s map of Israeli archaeology. But two millennia ago, the area was heavily settled by Jews and still contains the remains of villages and networks of escape tunnels used by Jewish rebels fighting Roman forces.

The area’s most famous residents were the Hasmoneans — the family of Judah Maccabee. In the first centuries of the common era Christians arrived, and the area became home to many Byzantine-era monasteries. Local Arab villages were depopulated during Israel’s Independence War in 1948.

“The hills of Modi’in are simply crammed with archaeology,” said Amit Reem, the Antiquities Authority archaeologist in charge of the area. Reem dreams of finding the monumental graves of the Maccabees, which historical records place in the area, and has his eye on a particular site not far away from the city. His excavation is held up because of a lack of funding.

Three men were arrested June 12 as they attempted to loot an ancient site near the city of Beit Shemesh (Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

Three men were arrested June 12, 2011, as they attempted to loot an ancient site near the city of Beit Shemesh (Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

In the meantime he makes do with more mundane tasks: One morning this week, Reem was overseeing the excavation of a just-discovered underground passage — perhaps the entrance to a burial cave — just outside one of the city’s new industrial areas. The archaeologists had been lucky to spot the cave before the tomb robbers did, and a square entryway was becoming visible for the first time in centuries.

Ironically, the archaeologists’ knowledge of the area has expanded in recent years precisely because the land is being swallowed up by urban development as Modiin rapidly expands. Before contractors build they have to pay for salvage digs, and those have led to an increase in the number of new sites being excavated. The new cave Reem is excavating will soon be covered by an industrial building.

The area’s historical profile makes it attractive for antiquities thieves, because it is Second Temple-era items that tend to fetch the highest sums on the market. Burial caves are promising sources of artifacts — bodies were often buried with a few personal items — and escape tunnels are also good places to find coins or other objects dropped or stashed by desperate and frightened people in wartime.

During a visit this week to the site of the abandoned Arab village of Haruba, just outside Modi’in, on the site of an ancient settlement, an unmarked tunnel network accessible through a low entrance hidden under a sabra cactus bush showed signs of human activity, including the tin base of a small candle and broken ceramic shards. The tunnels split and branched off, extending deep underground. The five men arrested by Antiquities Authority officers in February were found hiding at Haruba in a similar cave.

Looking at the rise in antiquities theft around Modi’in, the officers theorize that the construction of the security barrier in the southern West Bank might have complicated access to areas traditionally popular with the tomb raiders, like the hills near the city of Beit Shemesh. As a result, they have begun to travel with Israeli drivers who ferry Palestinian workers, legally or illegally, to Modi’in, where there are many Palestinian workers engaged in building the new city.

Others have offered a more colorful explanation for the interest in the area, and particularly in Haruba itself.

Haruba is a name that appears in one of the strangest of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Copper Scroll — a long list of directions, hammered in Hebrew letters on copper, to places where gold and valuable vessels lie buried. Many scholars believe the Copper Scroll is a guide to the location of Temple treasures hidden around the time of the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE.

“In Haruba, which is in the Valley of Achor,” reads the scroll, discovered at Qumran in 1952, “beneath the steps that enter to the east, 40 lath cubits: a chest of silver and its vessels. Weight: 17 talents.”

The cryptic scroll lists other locations where treasure is buried, including “in the residence of the queen, on the west side,” 12 cubits underground, and “in the pit that is next to the eastern gate at a distance of 15 cubits.”

Haruba near Modiin indeed appears to be a popular site for antiquities thieves, but archaeologists tend to agree that the site has nothing to do with the Haruba of the Copper Scroll — the scroll appears quite clearly to list locations in and around Jerusalem and the Judean Desert, not near Modiin. And some scholars believe the sentence doesn’t refer to a site called “Haruba” at all, but should properly be translated, “In the ruins of the Valley of Achor.”

The two men apprehended on June 6 by the antiquities theft unit are still in custody and, if convicted, are likely to spend between six months and one year in jail.

After that, the unit’s officers assume, they will be back.

_______

Find Matti Friedman on Twitter and Facebook.