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Crack unit of rock-climbing archaeologists claims success in curbing antiquities theft

In 2016, international media was ablaze with confirmation that the Israel national archives held the oldest Hebrew mention of the city of Jerusalem. According to freshly released C14 dating, the fragile piece of papyrus originated in the 7th century BCE, the First Temple period.

The extremely rare papyrus — one of just three extant Hebrew papyri from that period — was reportedly obtained by the Israel Antiquities Authority during a sting operation against an antiquities dealer caught in the act of purchasing artifacts from looters in 2012.

A monumental discovery in its own right, for the head of the IAA’s theft prevention unit Amir Ganor, the Jerusalem papyrus represented much more: It was a wake-up call.

“We began to look for the Jerusalem papyrus’s probable origin and determined it came from the Judean Desert,” Ganor told The Times of Israel at the IAA’s Jerusalem headquarters on Wednesday. And, as usual, he said, “Whenever we got to a likely cave, we found it had already been looted” leaving little for archaeologists to salvage.

The IAA turned to the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage, then part of the Prime Minister’s Office, and received a greenlight — and budget — to train a crack team of rappelling and rock-climbing archaeologists to begin an unprecedented survey of the caves of the Judean Desert.

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Speaking with The Times of Israel at a celebratory unveiling of the team’s most recent discovery — four almost perfectly preserved Roman swords dating from the era of the Bar Kochba Revolt — Dr. Eitan Klein, the deputy head of the Theft Prevention Unit, said the Judean Desert operation marks the first time that the unit is playing offense versus defense with antiquities looters.

From right to left, Dr. Asaf Gayer, Oriya Amichay, Dr. Eitan Klein, and Amir Ganor, with some of the Roman swords at the IAA office in Jerusalem. (Yoli Schwartz/IAA)

The team began its activities in the Dead Sea cliff region near Qumran and, so far, some 800 caves have been surveyed over 170 kilometers of land that straddles the State of Israel and the West Bank using drone technology and hi-tech mapping. Often perched on rocky cliff ledges, the IAA has to date performed 24 excavations that have yielded thousands of finds — including a handful of new Dead Sea Scroll fragments.

Today, there are some 50 additional caves that are ripe for excavation and about three more years of funding to undertake them, said Ganor. Klein added that parts of the western section of the desert have not yet been touched at all — at least, not by the IAA.

Ganor acknowledged that looters are all too aware that the conditions inside the caves of the Judean Desert can make them little time capsules with troves of antiquities. But when asked what has surprised him the most during this six-year intensive project, he said, “The fact that there are still so many finds in the caves.”

Ransacking national treasures for cash

International institutions are feeling the effects of a tide change as many of the public are increasingly less tolerant of unprovenanced artifacts on display. Many museums across the globe are now involved in restitution research, with some returning treasured antiquities to their countries of origin.

The private antiquities market has likewise seen sharper scrutiny in the past decade. Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos, for example, has zeroed in on the collections of high-profile philanthropists such as Michael Steinhardt and Shelby White, who subsequently have restituted portions of their holdings.

In the Holy Land, things are, as usual, a little complicated. In swaths of land including the Judean Hills and Judean Desert, it is extremely difficult to locate exactly where artifacts are looted from. Perhaps even less clear is under which governing body’s authority they should be restituted.

The Heliodorus Stele, on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, is among the 180 looted antiquities that Michael Steinhardt has agreed to surrender in a deal with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. (Asaf Shalev/JTA)

In January 2023, the United States repatriated a cultural object for the first time to the Palestinian Authority — a 7th-century BCE Assyrian incense spoon from the Steinhardt collection. Another object that has been mislaid in the same collection is also slated to be returned to the PA if ever recovered.

In Steinhardt’s seized collection, the NY district attorney siphoned off an additional 28 other looted artifacts with origins in Israel and the Palestinian territories, including some items still on display at the Israel Museum such as the Heliodorus Stele and Neolithic masks. According to a statement by the district attorney, the set of Neolithic masks depicting stylized human heads, dating to circa 7000 BCE, is collectively valued at $3 million.

These high-money artifacts arrived on the global antiquities market through illegal looting. Clearly, as long as there are those who turn a blind eye and pay top dollar, the ransacking of archaeological sites will continue.

According to an article in the June 2020 Al-Aqsa University Journal (For Human Science), “the estimated total number of looted and trafficked archaeological objects from May 1967 to June 2019… is approximately 8.4 million… As for the total number of antiquities looters, this is estimated at between 100,000 and 120,000 individuals (a looter defined in this work as a person who participated – alone or as part of a group – in digging an archaeological site or feature one or more times), with the middlemen and antiquities dealers numbering together several hundred.”

A Neolithic mask loaned by American billionaire Michael Steinhardt, is displayed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

New tactics for a losing battle

Each year, the IAA’s Theft Prevention Unit catches about 60 looters across the country out of about 400 looting events, said Ganor, adding that the odds aren’t too terrible, considering there are some 3,000 archaeological sites in the country. But, frankly, they’re not that great, too.

However, since the Judean Desert project’s launch six years ago and with the amplified IAA presence onsite, there has been only one known looting case, said Ganor.

Inspectors for the Israel Antiquities Authority Theft Prevention Unit with three ossuaries recovered from a burial cave in northern Israel that was nearly destroyed by construction. (courtesy Yoli Schwartz/IAA)

The causality between IAA presence and lack of looting is clear, said both Ganor and Klein. The unit hopes to launch similar well-staffed survey projects in other areas of the country with rampant looting, such as the Shephelah region, which would necessarily require more budget and more manpower.

The current IAA operation is undertaken in cooperation with the Staff Officer of the Archaeology Department of the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria (COGAT) and the Heritage Ministry. Each body allocated about a third of the entire project budget from its institutions.

Likewise, upon discovering finds of importance — such as the 1,900-year-old swords on display Wednesday — universities are eager to partner with the IAA and help take on a bulk of the costly laboratory research, said Klein.

In the case of the swords, he said, the team hopes to perform C14 on their wooden handles and leather scabbards, metallurgy tests on the blades, take DNA samples to pinpoint where the wood and leather originated — and maybe even find blood on the well-used blades to perhaps learn who they were used upon. As hi-tech archaeology continues to evolve, there are ever-new horizons to explore.

Archaeologists remove the swords from the rock crevice where they were hidden some 1,900 years ago in a cave in the Judean Desert. (Emil Aladjem/IAA)

For Klein, the most surprising and thrilling find over the past six years is the four-sword cache, an unprecedentedly large find in the region, and extremely rare across the Roman empire. They are in an amazingly well-preserved condition — thanks again to the desert’s unique conditions — and he believes they were either stolen from Roman soldiers or taken from the battlefield. Each massive sword is custom-made to order for the soldier who wielded it; no two are alike.

“Roman literature doesn’t tell us the full story” of what happened during the Bar Kochba Revolt, he said. “It’s up to archaeology to fill in the picture.”

The Judean Desert survey project began with the drive to salvage undiscovered Dead Sea Scrolls, but for Klein, that is now not the priority. He is trying to connect the dots between the peoples who inhabited the region over many different ages.

“It’s now a historical story, a story of escape, of refugees, and, when you speak of the early priests or the inhabitants of Qumran, of self-isolation,” he said.

“By moving from cave to cave in the Judean Desert, we are succeeding in protecting our national heritage,” said Klein. “We are very happy we succeeded in protecting these swords from the hands of looters.”