First Person: Should These Looters Go to Jail?

As published in the July/August 2017 Biblical Archaeology Review

hershel-shanksImagine a young Bedouin looter exploring one of the hundreds of complicated and dangerous caves in the Judean Desert by the Dead Sea. He discovers an extraordinary ancient gold artifact with a Hebrew inscription referring to King Solomon.

One of the Israeli antiquities dealers who sees it reports it to the authorities, who quickly trace it to the young Bedouin and seize it from him. It is displayed in the Israel Museum, which has to remain open until midnight to accommodate the crowds. It is an international sensation. The New York Times sends two of its most knowledgeable reporters to write the story.

The young Bedouin looter is arrested by the authorities and tried for looting and sentenced to two years in prison. The gold inscription soon comes to be regarded as Israel’s most valuable ancient inscription.

This of course is a thoroughly fictional account. But it does bear some resemblances to a real occurrence—something that is reported in the Archaeological Views column of this very issue of BAR.1

What makes me feel the need to explore the situation is the fact that the looters alert the archaeologists to the existence of the other valuable finds in the cave and get sent to jail for it, while the archaeologists learn from the looters where to dig.

There are thousands of caves in the Judean Desert. They are large and twisting and dangerous. They have produced archaeological riches beyond avarice. Yet for some reason they cannot all be located and explored. They are often accidentally explored—sometimes by looters. When the looters are caught, they are jailed—instead of congratulated—for the find. Somehow it doesn’t seem right. But somehow I am pretty sure I am wrong. Maybe an archaeologist can explain why to me.

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The Archaeological Views authors tell us that “the Cave of the Skulls is part of the Large Cave Complex located at the top of a high vertical cliff in the northern bank of Nahal Ze’elim Valley in the Judean Desert.”1 In 1960 the eminent professor Yohanan Aharoni, then of Hebrew University and later of Tel Aviv University, excavated here, but—as we will see—somehow his excavations did not uncover all of the archaeological treasures in the cave.


The Cave of the Skulls. Photo: G. Pitoussi.

His discoveries did, however, drive “the archaeological institutions in Israel to embark on a large-scale archaeological project in the Judean caves, known as the Judean Desert Operation,” during which dozens of cliff caves were surveyed and excavated. “[T]he Large Cave Complex has been a preferred target for looters” since Aharoni’s time. Surveys “have made it clear that despite the frequent looting, there is still much to discover.”

After a report that looters were operating in the Cave of Skulls, they were arrested and sentenced to 18 months in prison. It was apparently their looting that caused the Israeli authorities to undertake the excavation. In short, as a result of the looting, an archaeological excavation headed by the authors of the BAR article was undertaken. But, for their discovery, the looters were imprisoned.

I’m sure this is justified, but somehow I’m not able to explain it entirely satisfactorily to myself. I would be happy if the looters would be stopped and the authorities would move in. On the other hand, it was their work that initiated the archaeological excavation.

“First Person: Should These Looters Go to Jail?” by Hershel Shanks was originally published in Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 2017.



1. See Eitan Klein, Uri Davidovich, Roi Porat, Amir Ganor and Micka Ullman, Archaeological Views: “In the Cave of the Skulls—Again,” BAR, July/August 2017.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

IAA to Excavate Judean Desert Caves in Search of Scrolls

How Ancient Jews Dated Years
Document dated four years after the Bar-Kokhba Revolt looted from the Judean Desert

Archaeological Looting and the Destruction of Cultural Heritage

Biblical History at What Cost? by Roberta Mazza
Hobby Lobby, the Museum of the Bible and the antiquities market

Sold to the Highest Bidder: Antiquities as Cash Cows
The case of the AIA-St. Louis Society and the Treasure of Harageh

Endangered Heritage: Archaeological Looting in Turkey

Ancient Coins and Looting


Posted in Artifacts and the Bible, Cultural Heritage.

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  • Alan says

    Apply Economics 101. Make it more profitable to do the right thing. Reward anyone who reports a discovery, but does not disturb it seriously. (A bit of superficial burrowing or lifting the odd arrowhead as proof could be overlooked.) Come down heavily on anyone who doesn’t report a finding or starts trying to peddle artifacts to any unofficial channel, and even more heavily on the prospective purchasers.

  • Domenic says

    There is a difference between someone entering my home through a back window in the middle of the night, and another person being invited through my front door. The former is dealt a dose of hostility, while the latter is met with the greatest level of hospitality. Some commenters have wisely noted that local looters can be compensated as guides, who may be of benefit to officials and archaeologists. The events that led the locals to loot may have been unique, and maybe the means to end that looting should be too.

  • Robert says

    You know!—Truly!—If we were to consider every man, woman and child on this, —G–d’s earth,—a member of our own family,—we all could/would/should/,—CELEBRATE!— The finding of archaeological treasure,—anywhere!

    Can you imagine!—The Ark of The Covenant is still buried somewhere! In my opinion,—all findings of any importance should be celebrated and rewarded!

    Let the ‘market’ decide the value of the find.


    Robert P. Killian
    Monte Carlo,

  • Robyn says

    There is a difference between looters and discoverers. If the former can be encouraged to become the latter by reward and recognition then the world will not loose finds that might give important insights into the past. The looters are going to sell their finds anyway so why not sell them to the authorities and get recognised for their efforts.

  • David says

    Suppose a man drops a coin in the desert, and then dies.

    2900 years later, after 58 Jubilees, some person walking in that desert finds that coin, and does anything he chooses with that coin. If he is a citizen of the country in which the desert exists, and the desert is owned by the government, then it would seem to me that he has as much right to that coin as any other person in the entire world.

    If, however, some rich man purchases a building and puts his name on that building and declares that all coins found in the desert – any desert – belong to him and must be housed in the building that has his name on it. In this case, absolutely, anyone that finds a coin should forfeit the coin to the rich man, and shall be thrown in a prison. Yeah, I think that is fair, what could be the problem????

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