Six Palestinians were arrested on suspicion of stealing ancient artifacts from a cave near the Dead Sea, the Israel Antiquities Authority said Sunday.
An indictment against the six was filed by the IAA Sunday after the group was observed excavating illegally in the Cave of Skulls, an archaeological site located in the cliffs of a canyon near Masada. The men were also charged with illegally entering Israeli territory without a permit.
The IAA said officers arrested the suspects in possession of antiquities, including a Roman-era lice comb, after observing them conducting illegal excavations in the cave. The IAA hailed the red-handed bust as the first of its kind in the Judean Desert in 30 years.
The illegal excavation, the indictment charged, “critical damage to archaeological remains, and irreversible damage to archaeological strata” and destroyed numerous earthenware fragments.
Court documents identified the suspects as Hatem bin Abdel-Qader al-Matur, 38, Ghassar bin Ibrahim al-Matur, 43, Nuaf bin Halil al-Matur, 39, Osama bin Issa al-Matur, 36, Wael bin Issa al-Matur, 35, and Majdi bin Issa al-Matur. All six are residents of the West Bank village of Seir, near the city of Hebron.
The Cave of Skulls is one of hundreds of caverns in the Judean Desert which have yielded invaluable archaeological discoveries in the past century, most notably the Dead Sea Scrolls.
“The apprehension of the robbers was part of a complex operation to locate the Dead Sea scroll robbers, which lasted more than a year,” the IAA said in a statement.
They were indicted at the Beersheba Magistrates Court and, if convicted, could face up to five years in prison.
Amir Ganor, director of the IAA’s Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery, told The Times of Israel that the cave had been surveyed, but not
excavated, in 1960, and that indispensable information was lost when it was plundered.
“Any site in which our ancestors lived has significance,” he said.
Ganor said that antiquities thieves likely sought ancient documents, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, that were stashed in the caves during Jewish revolts against Rome in the first and second centuries CE. Aside from the comb, they had taken a number of other smaller items from the cave, but he said they weren’t in possession of any scroll or scroll fragments.
The arid climate and remote geography left the parchment and papyrus documents undisturbed for millennia.
“These finds are sold for large sums of money in the antiquities markets in Israel and around the world,” Ganor said in a statement. “Over the years many of the plundered finds reached the antiquities markets in Israel and abroad, but it has been decades since perpetrators were caught red-handed. This is mainly due to the difficulty in detecting and catching them on the wild desert cliffs.”