Israeli Teams Hunt for Scrolls Caves near Dead Sea Searched before Pullout Next Month

Article excerpt

Amid charges of last-minute plundering, Israel sent 16 teams of archaeologists fanning out across the occupied West Bank Sunday in a search for more Dead Sea scrolls.

Some of the area being searched will be in a Palestinian self-rule zone soon after Israel starts its withdrawal Dec. 13.

Ancient documents, including poetry, legal texts and the earliest known parts of the Bible, were found in Judean desert caves near the Dead Sea over a 10-year period starting in 1947. Scholars believe more scrolls could shed light on ancient Jewish sects and groups that may have influenced early Christian thought.

Efrat Orbach, a spokeswoman for Israel's Antiquities Authority, said, "We hope that there are other scrolls, and, if there are none, then our consciences will be clear. No one can say we never looked for them."

But archaeologists admit that the chances of finding any scrolls are slim, because most caves have already been either looted or explored by archaeologists during excavations dating back to the 1950s.

Nevertheless, dozens of government archaeologists and surveyors were taking part in what is the most extensive hunt for antiquities in the Dead Sea area since Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in 1967.

In this dry river bed, or wadi, near the city of Jericho, a two-man team sifted through desert dust, goat droppings and 5,000-year-old human bones in a cave halfway up a 1,000-foot cliff.

The archaeologists collected pottery and some cloth, which they took for dating. They were quite certain that they were the first to set foot in the cave since it was used for burials in the Stone-Bronze, or Chalcolithic age, about 3500 B.C.

"Professionally, I am looking for anything, but in my soul I would like to find scrolls," said archaeologist Idan Shaked, gray dust caked on his face. …

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