Friday, May 27, 2016

News Flash: Two-Week Excavation in the Cave of Sculls

My friend Alison Schofield reports that she will be joining a new excavation that is now taking place in a remote Dead Sea cave after a previously-unknown papyrus manuscript was found there by plunderers in 2014 (more here).

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announces the excavation on their webpage (here), from which I cite :
In November 2014, inspectors of the IAA’s Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery apprehended a band of robbers, residents of the village Sa‘ir near Hebron, while engaged in plundering the contents of the Cave of the Skulls in Nahal Tse’elim. The suspects were caught “red-handed”, were arrested on the spot, have been investigated, sentenced and served a prison sentence, and are required to pay the State of Israel a fine of 100,000 NIS. At the time of their arrest they were in possession of important archaeological artifacts that date to the Roman period, c. 2,000 years ago, and the Neolithic period, c. 8,000 years ago.

In 2009 an ancient papyrus was seized that was written in Hebrew and dates to the Year Four of the Destruction of the House of Israel (139 CE). The papyrus was confiscated in a joint operation by the IAA’s Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery and the Israel Police during a meeting with antiquities dealers in which the papyrus was offered for sale for the amount of 2 million dollars. The investigation of the robbers involved in the affair showed that this papyrus was apparently also discovered in Nahal Tse’elim. The contents of it, 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. Now, the Israel Antiquities Authority hopes to find such documents.

The Cave of Skulls, where the excavation is taking place, is located about 80 meters from the top of the cliff, and c. 250 m above the base of the wadi. Because of the difficulty in reaching the site, the Israel Antiquities Authority obtained a special permit from the Nature and Parks Authority to construct an access trail, which requires the use of rappelling equipment for the safety of the participants in the excavation. More than 500 volunteers and field personnel from Israel and abroad were required for the undertaking, and they are sleeping and living in a camp in desert field conditions. Many requests by individuals offering to participate have been denied because of the lack of infrastructure to provide for such a large group of archaeologists, volunteers and interested parties. The current excavation season will end in another two weeks, assuming this will be sufficient time in order to extract the valuable archaeological information from the cave.


  1. Very interesting. Thank you. The blog text says "a previously-unknown papyrus manuscript was found there by plunderers in 2014 (more here)." But the linked article says "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." Was the 2014 reference about a different case?

  2. A related article:

  3. Cave of "sculls"? Sounds like a student bar.