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Israeli archaeologists rush to dig at Cave of Skulls before looters take everything

By: The Washington Post
June 26, 2016 Updated: June 26, 2016 at 4:15 am
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Volunteers taking part in an archeological dig in a cave known as the Cave of Skulls in Wadi Tzeelim in the Judean Desert sift through sand and mud looking for artifacts that indicate human life. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Ruth Eglash

NAHAL TZE'ELEM, Israel - Amir Ganor is an Israeli cop, but not the kind who chases car thieves or bank robbers. Ganor is a Jewish Indiana Jones, an archaeologist gumshoe. But instead of a coiled bullwhip at his side, he shoves a pistol into his pants and manhandles jeeps through seemingly impassable goat trails.

The investigator's beat is the antiquities bazaars of the Holy Land and the remote caves of the Judean Desert, where hinky Israeli dealers, Palestinian tomb raiders and Bedouin guides conspire to traffic in the world's oldest merchandise, especially the loot unearthed from the time of Roman legions and Jewish rebels and Jesus of Nazareth.

Today the target of Ganor's investigation is a remarkable cavern located high in the pitiless mountains above the Dead Sea, a frying pan of extreme heat and dryness, rich in artifacts from the deep prehistory of humankind.

"Why did we come here? We came to stop the looters from taking it all," said Ganor, who sported blue-tinted sunglasses and seemed relaxed and loose in the broiling air. "They led us here in a way. They destroy much, but they find things, too. Clever. Always watching. They are very destructive, but sometimes they know where to look."

After busting a crew of tomb robbers armed with shovels and metal detectors digging at the site two years ago, Ganor and a team of archaeologists from Hebrew University in Jerusalem launched an "emergency excavation" last month to sift the powdery dust and bat guano before looters made off with everything.

The three-week dig was the largest, most complex and most intensive Israeli excavation in the desert in 60 years.

Archaeologists call the site the Cave of Skulls, for the seven craniums found buried deep inside in 1953.

The cave might hold not only bits of bone, clay and wood, as the team has found, but also the most sought-after treasure of all: more Dead Sea scrolls, fragments of words written on pieces of papyrus reed or skin parchment and preserved for 2,000 years in the dry desert air.

The most famous collection of scrolls was found to the north of the Cave of Skulls in 11 caverns near Qumran. The Dead Sea texts are of tremendous historical and religious interest, as the ancient manuscripts illuminate early versions of the Hebrew Bible and religious prayer and practice at the time.

It is possible that the Cave of Skulls has papyrus with printed text, but if it does, it likely will be only a scrap or two - and nothing like the trove found in Qumran, a mass of material so rich that it has its own pavilion at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem called the Shrine of the Book.

Still, hundreds of young volunteers cycled through the dig, sleeping in a rough camp at the canyon rim by night and during the day venturing 260 feet down a cliff face to the job site. They excavated buckets of dirt and sifted the soil, working in a fog of brown dust, their faces blackened with sweat and dirt. They worked side by side with archaeologists.

They commuted to the dig by donning harnesses and clipping themselves with rappelling gear onto a series of fixed ropes and cables for the trip up or down. A careless moment and a slip on the loose rock could have found them plummeting to the streambed 1,000 feet below.

The archaeologists found plenty of bird and bat excrement. But they also uncovered animal and human bones, awls, arrowheads, spindles, flint, a lice comb and, most intriguing, a fragment of papyrus that could match a piece confiscated by antiquities police in 2009 that looters from Hebron said they had found in the Cave of Skulls.

"We always wish we could find something with writing on it. This was our big hope, but we are happy with what we have found so far," said Micka Ullman, an archaeologist at Hebrew University, who sat covered in fine dust at the cave's entrance one day during the dig.

"We have found papyrus. It doesn't show any writing on it. We will test in the lab - maybe under analysis, something will show itself," said Ganor, the head of the robberies division for the Israeli antiquities authority.

The Cave of Skulls was professionally excavated in 1953 and 1960. Then looters had their turn.

In 2009, when the fragment of incredibly old papyrus with some Hebrew writing was offered for sale by a cagey middleman in Jerusalem, Ganor and his team laid a trap to recover the scroll.

The scroll now is being studied at the Israel Museum; it turned out to be a fragment of a letter, with place names and an intriguing clue.

The letter was dated "four years after the destruction of Israel."

There are 34 more caves - each with evidence of human use. Most hardly have been touched, except by looters.

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