A Bedouin shepherd came across the first of the ancient scrolls in 1947. He found them stored in jars in a cave in Qumran near the northern tip of the Dead Sea. Some were sold to a monastery and others to an antiquities dealer in Bethlehem. Once their authenticity had been established, archaeological expeditions and antiquity robbers followed and emptied the caves of whatever they could find.
But decades later, the Judean Desert still had more secrets to give up.
Amid signs that robbers were still seeking and hawking artifacts from the area, parts of which are difficult to reach and govern, the Israeli authorities decided to carry out a methodical, comprehensive survey of the cliffs, gorges and caves beginning in 2017.
“The archaeologists always used to chase after the robbers,” said Amir Ganor, who leads the Antiquities Authority’s theft-prevention unit. “We decided it was perhaps time to get ahead of the robbers.”
Aided by modern tools such as drones that could search every nook and cranny, three teams made up of four people each mapped and scoured about 50 miles of cliff face running the length of the Dead Sea.
Access to some of the caves would have been easier in ancient times. People knew how to navigate the animal paths, Mr. Ganor said, and instead of rappelling, they would have used rope ladders for remote caverns. But over 2,000 years, parts of the terrain have collapsed, creating deep chasms.
The West Bank was under Jordanian control from 1948 until Israel captured the area in the 1967 Middle East war. It is now divided between Israeli and partial Palestinian control. But the 1967 boundary did not exist in antiquity, Mr. Ganor said, and the archaeologists treated the Judean Desert as one unit for the purposes of the survey.
In the MurabBa’at caves, in what is now the West Bank, the archaeologists turned up a trove of artifacts. That included the basket and a cache of rare coins from the days of the Bar Kokhba revolt, minted with Jewish symbols such as a harp and date palms.