IAA to Excavate Judean Desert Caves in Search of Scrolls

Bible and archaeology news


The Israel Antiquities Authority has launched a plan to comprehensively excavate the Judean Desert caves, beginning with the Cave of Skulls in Nahal Tse’elim. Photo: Yoli Shwartz, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) has announced a national plan to conduct comprehensive archaeological excavations in the Judean Desert caves, which lie east of Jerusalem and overlook the Dead Sea. The goal of the large-scale effort, which will be done in cooperation with the Heritage Project in the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and with MK Miri Regev, the Minister of Culture and Sport, is to excavate and “rescue” remaining Dead Sea Scroll fragments from looters who have been illicitly removing antiquities from the caves.

“The antiquities robbers are plundering the Land of Israel’s history, which is something we cannot allow,” said MK Miri Regev in an IAA press release. “The Dead Sea scrolls are an exciting testament of paramount importance that bear witness to the existence of Israel in the Land of Israel 2,000 years ago … It is our duty to protect these unique treasures, which belong to the Jewish people and the entire world.”

Interested in the history and meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls? In the free eBook Dead Sea Scrolls, learn what the Dead Sea Scrolls are and why are they important. Find out what they tell us about the Bible, Christianity and Judaism.

The IAA kicked off this effort last week with excavations at the Cave of Skulls in Nahal Tse’elim, a wadi near Masada, under the direction of archaeologists Dr. Eitan Klein, Dr. Uri Davidovich, Royee Porat and Amir Ganor. Because the Cave of Skulls is located about 262 feet from the top of the cliff and about 800 from the wadi below, the IAA had to build an access trail and require that all dig participants use rappelling equipment when getting to and from the excavation site.


Volunteers working at the Cave of Skulls in Nahal Tse’elim. The Dead Sea can be seen in the distance. Photo: Yoli Shwartz, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

In 2014, antiquities thieves were caught at the Cave of Skulls in Nahal Tse’elim with artifacts dating to the Roman period (2,000 years ago) and to the Neolithic period (8,000 years ago).


An ancient papyrus fragment dating to Year Four of the Destruction of the House of Israel (139 C.E.) was seized in 2014 from antiquities thieves. The papyrus was evidently from Nahal Tse’elim. Photo: Shai Halevi, courtesy of the Leon Levy Digital Library, Israel Antiquities Authority.

Also evidently associated with Nahal Tse’elim is an ancient papyrus fragment seized from thieves during a sting operation conducted by the IAA’s Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery and the Israel Police in 2009. The papyrus contains Hebrew writing and dates to Year Four of the Destruction of the House of Israel—that is, 139 C.E., four years after the end of the Bar-Kokhba Revolt (132–135 C.E.). This papyrus represents the first time this dating formula has been attested.

“The contents of [the papyrus], which mentions the towns and settlements in the area of the Hebron hill-country, suggests 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,” states the IAA press release. “Now, the Israel Antiquities Authority hopes to find such documents.”

“The time has come for the state to underwrite broad action so as to rescue [these] cultural assets of enormous historical importance while they still remain in the caves,” remarked Israel Hasson, director-general of the IAA. “Substantial amounts need to be allocated, which will allow the Israel Antiquities Authority to embark upon a large-scale operation for studying the desert, including the caves, and excavating the artifacts. After all, the Dead Sea scrolls are of religious, political and historical importance to Jews, Christians and all of humanity.”

Visit the Dead Sea Scrolls study page in Bible History Daily for more on this priceless collection of ancient manuscripts.


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  • linda says

    It sems to me there are more than one kind of theft.

  • Clinton says

    Well Joe,
    I would tend to agree with you!? Perhaps it is a good thing these {thieves} are very active?!? For One would think had they not , the artifacts would still be in the ground? never to come to light?

  • Joe says

    How is it possible that priceless ancient artifacts, and especially literary artifacts, were known to exist in these caves and yet were not recovered by the IAA or other sanctioned parties but rather, because of this negligence, have fallen into the hands of opportunistic thieves?

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