Archaeologists vs. robbers in Israel's race to find ancient scrolls
By Ari Rabinovitch
TZEELIM VALLEY, Israel (Reuters) - The disposable paper face masks offer little protection from the clouds of dust that fill the cliffside cave where Israeli archaeologists are wrapping up the largest excavation in the Judean desert of the past half-century.
Clipped into safety harnesses, volunteers stand at the cave opening, 250 meters (820 feet) above a dry river bed that leads to the lowest spot on earth, the Dead Sea.
They sift through an endless supply of dirt-filled buckets, and the dust they throw in the air reaches the far corners of the cave where a dozen workers crawling on hands and knees can't help but cough.
The three-week excavation was the first part of a national campaign to recover as many artefacts as possible, particularly scrolls, left behind by Jewish rebels who hid in the desert some 2,000 years ago, before they are snatched up by antiquity robbers.
"These looters that operate in the area are experts at finding scrolls. We go after them, look for what they are looking for and try to catch them," said Guy Fitoussi, head of the Israel Antiquities Authority robbery prevention unit in southern Israel. "This is the game. Like cat and mouse."
The Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of ancient texts written on papyrus and parchment, have already been rescued by scholars. They are among the earliest texts written in the Hebrew language and are on display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem as a national treasure.
Now Israel wants to uncover whatever may remain in the desert hideouts before it is destroyed or ends up on the black market.