Israel's Antiquities Authority Sunday announced it had indicted six men accused of stealing antiquities and destroying archaeological sites in the southern Judean Desert — the same desert where the Dead Sea Scrolls — religious texts dating from the third century BC — were found.
The announcement also revealed a connection to the ancient world: They had lice combs, too. The Antiquities Authority released a photo of what it says is a 2000-year-old lice comb captured along with the men.
The six men, all from the same Palestinian family, were arrested last week and indicted Sunday in Israeli court.
Guy Fitoussi, the director of the Antiquities Authority's Southern Region Prevention Unit, says the men were experienced and organized, using ropes and navigating narrow paths to access remote and hidden caves.
"These guys did really amazing stuff," Fitoussi told NPR. "I mean, bad amazing."
They were caught excavating in what's known to archaeologists as the "Cave of the Skulls." Antiquities Authority officials said it's in the side of a cliff, about 150 yards above the desert floor, accessible only by a narrow animal trail.
Much of the Judean desert is in the West Bank, but this site is in Israel, says Fitoussi. He says the men were able to reach the cave from their homes near Hebron because there is no wall or fence built between Israel and the West Bank in this stretch of desert.
Fitoussi said high caves in the area still contain treasures such as scraps of ancient manuscripts.
"Israel didn't dig enough in the desert since the big digs of the 1950s and '60s," Fitoussi said. Now, he says, the area is "like a black hole" for antiquities law enforcement.
He says the Antiquities Authority had been working to catch this group for more than a year. The bust is the first of its kind in three decades, the IAA says.
A local rescue unit had spotted unusual movement while in the desert for a routine training session. Antiquities police put surveillance equipment in the cave and waited.
The suspects were observed excavating in the cave. They were caught after they left, carrying excavation equipment, food — and that lice comb — and climbed 70 yards to the top of the cliff where police were waiting.
Fitoussi says they would face a maximum of five years in prison for damaging or stealing antiquities, but if they are convicted he expects much shorter sentences.
"But for us is it's good because besides the prison thing, we now know these people," he says. "We have lots of information now. It's making this war easier."