Photo Credit: Shomrim Al Hanetzach
Volunteer enters the Skull Cave

Dozens of shattered human skeletons, shovels, cigarette butts, coffee cups, and a fan net used to filter soil – this was the sight that greeted the volunteers of Shomrim Al Hanetzach (Watchmen for eternity) after crawling into the narrow opening of an unknown cave in Hyrcania, an ancient fortress in the Judaean Desert located on an isolated hill about 600 ft above the Hyrcania valley, on its western edge, about 3 miles west of the Qumran caves, and 10 miles east of Jerusalem.

The cave was used as a cistern or storage room in the Hasmonean period, and in the Byzantine period became a burial site for dozens of monks from the monastery of Castelion, which was built on the ruins of the Hasmonean fortress—and was eventually also destroyed.

Interior of the Skull Cave / Photo credit: Shomrim Al Hanetzach

This site, which is one of the chain of Hasmonean fortresses fortified by King Herod some 2,000 years ago, has never been excavated in a comprehensive, scientific manner, and therefore most of its findings are still buried in the depths of the earth – a fact antique robbers are well aware of, and as a result, according to the Regavim movement, the place has become a preferred destination for professional robbers searching for valuable artifacts.

Apart from the cave of the skulls, the volunteers found dozens of new, illegal excavation sites, as well as the remains of the bonfires that the robbers lit on the progressively eroding mosaic floor at the top of the fortress.

The theft of antiquities and the damage it causes archeological sites has been rife in Israel for many years. According to professional estimates, save for those sites that are under constant guard, there is almost no antiquities site in the country that has not been robbed. In fact, most of the new sites discovered in recent years were uncovered by the robbers of antiquities who were caught during the robbery.

The Shomrim Al Hanetzach forum was established a year ago to combat the worsening situation. It is a broad coalition of associations and organizations that gathered together to protect antiquities in Judea and Samaria and in Israel as a whole. They include Regavim, Green Now, the Legal Forum, the Association of Cities for the Environment, Ofra and Kfar Etzion Nature Schools, as well as local authorities and the Yesha Council.

Caves below the Hyrcania fortress which have been robbed Photo credit: Shomrim Al Hanetzach

“Jewish history in the Judaean Desert does not end at Masada,” said Moshe Guttman, one of the leaders of Shomrim Al Hanetzach which discovered the skull cave robbery. “The chain of seven Hasmonean desert fortresses are under daily attack by antiquities robbers, and the [IDF] Civil Administration hardly does anything to prevent this. Every person of culture and science, regardless of their political opinion, must cry out to prevent this chaos.”

“We call upon [Culture] Minister Miri Regev, Defense Minister Liberman and all the relevant government ministries to become involved in this matter,” Guttman said. “How can we remain apathetic when history is systematically destroyed only to fall in the hands of private collectors around the world, instead of remaining available to science and the public as a whole.”

“The cave of the skulls being destroyed by bandits is but one example of a broad and systematic phenomenon,” adds Yishai Hamo of the Regavim movement, warning that “if it does not stop soon, the results will be tragic. The government of Israel must allocate additional standards for supervision, launch salvage excavations and update the existing antiquities law in Judea and Samaria to match Israeli law, in order to provide a real response to the chaos that reigns in this field.”