Israel Antiquities Authority
Professor Hanan Eshel, 47, is a world-renowned specialist on ancient scrolls. For over two
decades, he has been conducting excavations at different sites around the
Judean Desert, a place where many ancient Hebrew scrolls have been found, including the Dead Sea Scrolls.
In August 2004, Eshel
received a call from his research assistant, Roi Porat, who informed him
that one of the Bedouin workers on their current excavation project
claimed that his family had an ancient scroll. The
Bedouin was willing to show the scroll to Eshel so that he could get an
appraisal of its worth.
Finding an ancient
scroll is the dream of every researcher in Eshel's field. And so,
Porat and he went to meet the Bedouin. "The Bedouin took out
of a medicine box four pieces of scroll, with verses from the book of
Leviticus," Eshel recalls. The Bedouin wanted 20
thousand dollars for the scroll.
Shortly after the
meeting, Eshel had to leave
Israel for six months for an overseas teaching engagement. In the meantime, he
instructed Porat to find the cave in Nahal Arugot, from where the
Bedouin had told them he had obtained to scrolls. After surveying the
area, Porat managed to find the cave- under the great dry waterfall of Nahal Arugot. The cave, technically across the Green Line, can only be
reached with the aid of climbing equipment. Porat climbed into the cave
and found it contained pottery and pieces of cloth from the Bar Kochba period. It was also clear that
local Bedouins were continuing to
dig in the cave and the surrounding areas in search of ancient
In November, Porat notified the Israel
Antiquities Authority of his excavations in the cave, submitted a report and
photos of the scroll.
When Eshel returned to Israel last February,
he discovered that the Bedouins had glued two parts of the scroll
together. The glue was damaging the scroll and could bring about its
disintegration. Eshel and Porat decided that the only way to save the
scroll would be to buy it. After protracted negotiations, Eshel bought
the scroll for $3,000. David Jesselson,
from Switzerland, who funds Eshel's research with a $50,000 annual
budget, provided the funds to buy the scroll.
Eshel first brought the scroll to the Israel
Museum's laboratories for preservation. Then he took it to the Israel Police,
where it could be inspected using infra-red photography. On April 14, Eshel met with Israel Antiquities Authority
(IAA) representative to arrange for the scroll's delivery to the IAA and to the Israel State Treasures. On
April 19, Eshel delivered the scrolls to the IAA, filled with pride that he had
saved a valuable ancient treasure from destruction or falling into the hands of a private
Six months later, police, armed with a
search warrant, knocked on Eshel's door. He was told that the IAA was charging him with dealing in stolen
antiquities. The detectives, after searching his apartment, took the
professor down to the police station for questioning. A month later, he
was called in again for questioning. This time the IAA
invited the press to witness the arrival of the distinguished professor
at police headquarters for questioning.
The news created an uproar in the academic
world. The charges the IAA filed against Eshel were based on a technicality. The
scroll was found in the part of Nahal Arugot that is on the West Bank.
And so Eshel had broken the law by importing unregistered antiquities
"For forty years, nobody in the academic world
has found an ancient scroll in the Judean Desert," says Professor Magen
Broshi, who organized a petition signed by dozens of Israel's most
distinguished researchers. "What exactly did they expect Eshel to do,"
he asks, "drag the Bedouin by the ear to the nearest police station so
that he would give up his scroll?" Hershel Shanks, the editor of the
Biblical Archaeological Review, pointed out in a newspaper article that
the Dead Sea Scrolls, the IAA's most famous scrolls, were acquired under exactly the same circumstances.
The IAA refuses to
respond. IAA Director General Shuka Dorfman claims that he cannot
respond because the case is being investigated by the police. Most Israeli
archaeologists and researchers agree that the charges against Eshel are
purely a vindictive attempt by the IAA to show the academic community
who is in charge. And, of course, the IAA is also unhappy about the fact that the credit
for the find goes to Eshel and not to it.