Chance Photo Leads to Alleged 'Cave of Skulls' Looters
Thieves sought ancient scrolls for local market, officials say
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 8, 2014 7:00 PM CST
A worker at the Israel Antiquities Authority points at a fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls in a laboratory in Jerusalem on Oct. 19, 2010.   (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

(Newser) – Trying to steal a comb is one thing—looting a 2,000-year-old comb from an ancient cave is quite another. Israel says it has apprehended a gang of thieves doing the latter from a Judean cave in the same region as the caves that once housed the Dead Sea Scrolls, the BBC reports. The six men, indicted Sunday, allegedly stole artifacts including a comb designed in Roman times to remove hair lice; antiquity officials say the men may have been after more scrolls or scroll fragments, the AP reports. Authorities say they caught the gang in late November exiting the "Cave of Skulls"—which is located in the side of a cliff—equipped with "sophisticated metal detectors" and "lighting equipment and ropes." They were caught after an Israeli antiquities inspector, in the area training as a rescue volunteer, happened to take a photograph of the cave and noticed two men standing near it.

"No one has any business being there on a Saturday morning," he explains. Authorities have been after "gangs of antiquities robbers ... operating along the Judean Desert cliffs" for years, says an Israeli anti-looting inspector in a statement. But none have been caught "red-handed" for decades, he adds, "mainly due to the difficulty in detecting and catching them on the wild desert cliffs." LiveScience reports that the cliffs' dry climate is ideal for preserving ancient bone, leather, wood, and parchment—including the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered in the 1940s and '50s. The caves also provided a hideout for Jewish rebels battling Roman forces roughly 2,000 years ago. The six looting suspects, all Palestinians from the West Bank, face up to five years on charges of ruining an antiquities site and excavating without a license. (In Poland, archaeologists are currently exhuming Nazi victims.)