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Monday, July 13, 1998 Published at 14:06 GMT 15:06 UK

World: Middle East

Real 'Raiders of the lost Ark'

Jones models himself on his Hollywood namesake

Paul Adams joins the search
An American archaeologist says he is close to unearthing the lost Ark of the Covenant, the ancient casket believed to contain the Ten Commandments.

The Ark is said to have gone missing in 566BC, and Vendyl Jones - a Texan archaeologist who believes he may have been the inspiration for the film character Indiana Jones - says he has located where it is buried.

[ image: The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the same area 50 years ago]
The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the same area 50 years ago
The Jordan Valley near Qumran is the lowest place on earth - a desolate wilderness, baking under the summer sun. But it is here that Vendyl Jones says he is on the verge of making one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time.

50 years ago the dead sea scrolls were found in this area. One of them, the mysterious Copper Scroll, speaks of buried treasure.

Sacred treasures

But it is not just any treasure, these are the sacred treasures of the Temple of Solomon, destroyed when Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem 2,500 years ago.

[ image: The lost Ark of the Covenant]
The lost Ark of the Covenant
Jones says: "If the geography of this area fits the Copper Scrolls, then the things that are described as being hidden here should be found."

For Jones' dedicated crew, all of whom have paid to be on the dig, it is back-breaking work with little reward. Many of them lack any archaeological credentials and are driven by the adventure and spiritualism of the dig.

Nearing goal

Listen to the radio version of Paul Adams report from Qumran
What keeps them going is the belief that somewhere under the desolate hills lies the Ark of the Covenant, and Jones says they are getting close.

In Jerusalem's Tower of David museum, representations of the temple that once housed the Ark still draw an admiring crowd.

[ image: The temple that once housed the Ark was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar]
The temple that once housed the Ark was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar
But while looking for the Ark might seem popular - even commendable - not everyone is convinced. Mention Vendyl Jones' name and most of Jerusalem's band of archaeologists see red.

"He has no academic qualifications whatsoever - he's more of an adventurer," says anthropologist Joe Zias. "People think that our job as biblical archaeologists is to go out and try to prove or disprove the Bible. You couldn't be further from the truth. Our job is to try to understand past historical processes, that's it."

Among Jerusalem's competing religious and national ideologies, the Ark is a potent symbol.

[ image: Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock]
Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock
The Ark is reputed to contain the Ten Commandments and lies at the centre of Jewish spiritual life. For right-wing Jewish zealots, its discovery might fuel calls for the temple's reconstruction.

However, for the past 1,300 years that place has been occupied by the Dome of the Rock - Islam's third holiest shrine.

Swashbuckling image

In the Hollywood blockbusters, Indiana Jones does battle with Nazis and head-hunters. Vendyl Jones, with his snakeskin belt and braces, certainly lives up to the swash-buckling image portrayed by Harrison Ford. Down by the Dead Sea, Vendyl relishes the parallels.

[ image: Battered hat and snakeskin braces: Jones relishes the parallels with Hollywood]
Battered hat and snakeskin braces: Jones relishes the parallels with Hollywood
"We found a booby-trap," he says pointing into the cave. "If we moved one stone, this big stone was going to come out from above. When we moved the stone it happened just like we thought it would - the one in Raiders of the Lost Ark was a little one compared to that."

Vendyl Jones has been digging for more than a decade. But, for all his enthusiasm, all he has found so far is some oil that may or may not have been used in the ancient Jewish temple in Jerusalem, and 600kg of a reddish substance that he says is incense - but others say is dirt.

But Jones is undaunted - somewhere in the rock he says lies a much greater prize.

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