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Archaeology'For 60 years Israel lost to the looters; now we're winners'

Dead Sea scroll discovery brings tantalizing prospect of more yet to be found

With another 20 promising caves to be excavated — and 25% more of the Judean Desert still to be surveyed — stunning finds in Cave of Horror unlikely to be the last

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Sieving finds at the entrance to Muraba‘at Cave. (Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority)
Sieving finds at the entrance to Muraba‘at Cave. (Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority)

On a day that saw the Israel Antiquities Authority unveil the first Bible scroll fragments found in decades and numerous other dazzling artifacts from the “Cave of Horror” above the Dead Sea  — including a huge 10,500-year-old complete woven basket, the oldest in the world — perhaps the most extraordinary news is that there are another 20 promising caves, holding untold potential treasures, that have yet to be excavated.

That means the dozens of fragments shown to the public on Tuesday could mark the beginning of an exciting new era of discovery, 60 years after the last major scroll finds.

Since 2017, the IAA has spearheaded an ambitious survey of some 500 caves in the Judean Desert in an unprecedentedly wide-ranging and physically daring operation involving rappelling down rockfaces and setting up work camps on sheer cliffs.

The operation’s stated goal is, for once, to be one step ahead of the antiquities looters who comb these caves, where the original caches of Dead Sea Scrolls — thousands of pieces of varied ancient scripture and writings dating from circa 400 BCE to 300 CE — were found by Bedouin shepherds starting in 1946.

In the operation to date, Amir Ganor, the head of the IAA’s anti-theft unit, told this reporter at a buzzing media event in the IAA’s Jerusalem office, most of the 600-plus Judean Desert caves have been mapped using drone technology and hi-tech mapping. That work, he said, has revealed 20 caves “with the potential for good artifacts” that will hopefully be carefully excavated in phase two of the project. And another 25 percent of the desert still needs to be surveyed in the first phase.

Related: Bible scroll fragments among dazzling artifacts found in Dead Sea Cave of Horror

The operation is being undertaken by the IAA in cooperation with the Staff Officer of the Archaeology Department of the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria (COGAT), and has been funded in part by the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage. Each body allocated about a third of the entire project budget from its institutions.

The inter-office cooperation is key to the success of the operation: About half of the Judean Desert, including the original source of most of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran, is located in the West Bank beyond the Green Line, where the IAA does not have jurisdiction. But the COGAT archaeologists have been seamlessly enfolded into the teams, said Ganor, enabling work in the entire Judean Desert.

Access to most of the caves required highly skilled rappelling down sheer cliffs, dangling between heaven and earth. (Ofer Sion, Israel Antiquities Authority)

“Now we know what’s happening in 500 caves, what’s worth saving, what’s worth inspecting further, what to leave,” said Ganor. The team is using a mix of hi-tech surveillance methods to monitor the promising caves, he said, without delving into exactly what.

Ahead of the looters

Perhaps more importantly, Ganor emphasized, this is the first time in his 25 years in the IAA’s anti-theft unit that Israel is beating the looters. For the past several years since the IAA’s intensive work began in the Judean Desert, he said, there have been no looters there at all. “They saw that we’re strong and investing people and money, and they stay away,” he said.

“For 60 years Israel lost, and now, finally, we’re the winners; we’re getting there before the looters,” said Ganor. Every artifact that his team uncovers is a pure win, he said, and prevents “the theft of our heritage and the destruction of human history.”

Ganor, a large man who stands several heads above this reporter, was one of the three IAA upper management members rappelling down cliffs and crouching inside cramped caves to discover the overlooked treasure.

Dr. Ofer Sion, 60, led a team into the well-named “Cave of Horror,” some 80 meters below the cliff face, where some 40 skeletons of Bar Kochba rebels were discovered during earlier excavations in the 1950s and early 1960s led by Yochanan Aharoni.

Sion, the head of the IAA’s surveys program, is no stranger to either the Judean Desert or rappelling — he taught it in 1984-86 at Ein Gedi, just to the north, on the shores of the Dead Sea. In all, Sion joked, he’s spent over 40 years wandering around in the desert.

The moment when the Book of the Twelve Minor Prophets scroll was discovered in Muraba‘at Cave. Ofer Sion is front and center. (Highlight Films, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

Initially, said Sion, who spoke to the media wearing a jaunty wool hat, he’d been unsure there would be much left to find in the cave, since it had already been excavated by a master. However, he said, as he lowered himself down to its lip, he spotted a leather sandal and two coins and realized it still had much to offer.

Once in 100 years

In the 1950s, explained Sion, Aharoni excavated according to the practices of the time, with the technology of the era. During the new team’s three weeks in the cave, much of what they did was uncover “overlooked” items — scroll fragments, coins, and even a mummified child from 6,000 years ago.

Sion said that the discovery of some 80 scroll fragments — some of them so tiny that they barely have letters attached — was possible only thanks to the tedious work of dry sifting the earth Aharoni left behind.

Sections of the Book of the Twelve Minor Prophets scroll discovered in the Judean Desert expedition as they were found. (Ofer Sion, Israel Antiquities Authority)

“This is a once in a 100 years find,” he said of the latest scroll fragments. And it almost didn’t happen at all. Only the sharp eyes of the archaeobotanist on the team, accustomed to seeing minuscule seeds and pollen, discerned the letters amidst the dust.

“You’ve got dust everywhere, in your glasses, in your face, and the scroll fragments are the color of stone. Only the archaeobotanist saw the tiny words. It was amazing,” he said.

Subsequently, said Sion, the two members of the team tasked with manning the metal detectors — technology unavailable to Aharoni, who thus overlooked a cache of Bar Kochba coins — came up to him with a handful of something folded, what “looked like garbage” at first glance, he said. They had turned up the first of several clumps of scroll fragments.

“We archaeologists, we’re a little crazy,” said Sion. Every day he’d gamely rappelled down to the cave and climbed his way back up. “When I had the scroll fragments in my bag, I went up in about a minute.”

In this widespread operation, not every member of the team was a seasoned archaeologist like Ganor and Sion — or even an archaeologist at all. Twentysomething Rotem Raz came to the project with a geology and surveying background, plus plenty of rappelling experience.

Rappelling to the Cave of Horror. (Eitan Klein, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Raz was tasked preliminarily with surveying the caves using drones, physically getting himself to the cave openings, and then prepping the cliffs for the archaeologists at promising caves, including bringing down their equipment. Part of that preparation included drilling in anchors for the rappelling ropes and metal handles, all of which were removed post-excavation, Raz said.

He collected vast amounts of data during the field operation, “which gives a more complete picture,” geologist Raz said, and research is ongoing.

Assuming additional funding is allocated, the sky is potentially the limit for the next phase of the operation.

“We’re the only ones able to do this, and now. We’re out there, and for once, beating the looters,” stressed Dr. Joe Uziel, head of the Dead Sea Scrolls unit. The work will require continued inter-departmental and inter-ministerial cooperation, and, of course, more funding. But time is of the essence and the clock is ticking, he said.

“If we had gotten to the Cave of the Horror two weeks later,” he said he feared, “we would have seen the scroll fragments selling online. The basket would have been on the market — or destroyed entirely.”

“It’s not about religious texts,” emphasized Uziel. “It’s about cultural heritage.”

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