The recent discovery of rare archaeological finds hidden untouched by human beings for thousands of years, in barely accessible caves in the Judean desert is the stuff Indiana Jones movies are made of: a race against time using modern technology and conducting excavations of extreme complexity to rescue antiquities before they fall prey to looters who destroy important antiquity sites in their quest to find priceless historical artifacts.
The new finds include dozens of fragments of a biblical scroll from the Bar-Kochba period (132-136 CE), a 6,000-year-old skeleton of a child and possibly the oldest complete basket in the world.
The discoveries come 70 years after the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which contain the earliest known copies of the Biblical Books and are considered to be one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.
The climatic conditions inside the Judean Desert caves have enabled the exceptional preservation of scrolls and ancient documents, allowing archaeologists – and thieves – to find them almost two thousand years later.
Uncovering the recent finds, said Eitan Klein, deputy director of the Israel Antiquities Authority Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Theft, co-director of the four-year operation, was like seeing history come alive before his very eyes.
“It is the dream of all archaeologists (to make such a discovery) and it is not something that happens every day,” he said. “Finding something significant like this connects you directly to the people who were there. You start to think about them, and how they reached (the caves), who put the (artifacts) there and why, what situation they were in. It really connects us to the people who walked this land thousands of years before us.”
The new historic discoveries were made 60 years after the last discovery of biblical scrolls in archaeological excavations. Verses from Zechariah 8:14-17 written in Greek were found on the dozen of parchment fragments:
These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to one another, render true and perfect justice in your gates. And do not contrive evil against one another, and do not love perjury, because all those are things that I hate – declares the Lord.
Other fragments from portions of the Book of the Twelve Minor Prophets, which in addition to the book of Zechariah also includes the book of Nahum, were also found.
The scroll fragments were retrieved from the “Cave of Horror” in the Judean Desert reserve’s Nahal Hever. The cave, roughly 80 meters below the cliff top, is flanked by gorges and can only be reached by rappelling down the sheer cliff. The archaeologists received special training for the excavation, and two went through a medics’ first aid course.
“This is a very dangerous and challenging excavation. We are also in touch with the IDF helicopter unit and rescue units in the area, in case we need rescuing,” Klein said.
The Jewish rebels who took the scrolls into the inhospitable “Cave of Horror” – where more than 30 skeletons were uncovered in an excavation in the 1960s and where the child’s skeleton was also now found buried – were most likely sure they were living in the time of the redemption and the messiah would arrive to rescue them, he said.
“The story behind the find is very emotional. There they were, sitting in the cave, with a Roman encampment above them, not letting them come out. And (the rebels) sat reading from the Prophets expecting the messiah to come save them as is written in the Book of Prophets,” said Klein. “It is very dramatic. It connects you to the last moments of their lives. It connected me to Jewish history.”
In addition to the fragments, a cache of rare coins engraved with Jewish symbols from the days of the Bar-Kochba Revolt such as a harp and a date palm, some woven fabric, sandals, and lice combs were uncovered. Much older remains including a 6,000 year-old skeleton of a child – believed by the archaeologists to be female – wrapped in a cloth and mummified, and a large complete basket dating back 10,500 years and likely the oldest in the world, were also found.
The discovery of the carefully wrapped child’s skeleton was especially poignant, said Klein.
“You realize you are witness to a…very dramatic and traumatic story,” he said. “You don’t know what the situation was, but you know it was a very emotional event for the people burying the child, who may have died in their arms.”
Most likely the child died of starvation, along with the other ancient occupants of the cave, he said.
“They probably hid in the cave from someone and couldn’t get out of the cave to re-escape,” he conjectured. “They ran out of food and they all died in the cave. Then later, during the Bar-Kochba Revolt, people also ran to the same cave.”
Though they are waiting for lab results to pinpoint the exact period the skeleton is from, it is clear that it is at least 5,000 years old, he said.
“It is pre-historic so there is no written account of what happened, but we know there was some event, maybe some war between two tribes in the Southern Land of Israel and people escaped to the desert,” he said.
Since 2009, the Israel Antiquities Authority’s anti-theft department had been embroiled in a cat-and-mouse chase with antiquities looters, as rare antiquities from the Bar-Kochba and First Temple period (7th century BCE) began to appear for sale on the antiquities market.
The final alarm came in 2013 when the same gang of thieves tried to sell a rare First Temple period papyrus and a certificate from two jars of wine.
“We understood that we have to catch this gang who were stealing from Judean Desert caves but we didn’t know exactly from which caves,” said Klein. “That’s when we began the mission to find out from where they were stealing and to catch the gang.”
Continuing with surveillance and using informants, their luck took a turn for the better at the end of 2014 when they caught members of the gang digging in a cave where they had first discovered the Bar-Kochba-era parchments in 2009, said Klein.
The thieves were sentenced to two years in jail.
In 2016, the IAA initiated an excavation in a cave known as the “Cave of Skulls,” where archaeologists found eight skulls inside a basket in the 1960s. Joined by 400 volunteers, among the finds discovered in the cave was a bundle of textiles wrapped around a cache of jewelry hidden some 5,000 years ago, said Klein.
The discovery, however, of small fragments of Hebrew script from the Second Temple period led them to believe that despite the 70 years of looting, important artifacts could still remain hidden in remote Judean Desert caves.
A year later, IAA Director Israel Hasson launched the current operation to survey all the Judean Desert caves and ravines, a mission which involves complex cave rappelling and flight drones used to map out the caves in remote areas.
“He decided that instead of running after thieves we would initiate a mission where we would reach the artifacts before the thieves got to them,” said Klein.
In an IAA press release, Hasson called the finds “a wake-up call” to the government and asked that funds be allocated to complete the project.
“We must ensure that we recover all the data that has not yet been discovered in the caves, before the robbers do,” he said.
Klein said that the excavations have encompassed going from cave to cave which have been mapped out by drone technology, to tell the full story of the Judean desert, not just of one cave. So far, he said, they have excavated in some 500 caves.
“We document every and all items that are connected to humans, to understand the activity beginning from prehistory... the Islamic Period... to the modern period – including the garbage that antiquities thieves left in cave two years ago,” Klein said. “We document the actions of the Bedouin antiquity thieves because that is also the story of the Judean Desert, and we want to understand the general story of the Land of Israel.”
Aware of the controversy often surrounding archaeological digs with some people maintaining that non-Jewish time periods are overlooked, particularly those in contested areas of the West Bank such as parts of the Judean Desert, Klein holds that archaeologists do not serve politics, but rather conduct their research unaffected by one ideology or another.
“We find items and we research them,” he said
Scrolls have also been found in the Negev Desert, Klein noted, but less so than in the Judean Desert which has always been the “backyard” of Jerusalem.
The cave-by-cave scanning, which was not possible before, has helped archaeologists identify previously unknown cave openings, he said.
“There is no 100 percent but we think our scanning is about 90 percent of the caves. I expect us to get to 95 percent of the caves, though there will be some we will miss,” he said. “Thefts still occur but our control of the area is much stronger now. We will have a catalogue of all the caves in the Judean Desert and today I can look at a cave and know if there are antiquities there or not, which I couldn’t know before. Before I would look at a cliff and see a black hole.”
Now if they hear about looters digging at a cave, they first look to see which cave it is.
“If they are digging in a cave that has nothing, then we don’t worry. We will still try to catch them, but we are assured that they won’t hurt any antiquities,” he said.
They have about another 40 kilometers of cliff still left to excavate, he said, and it will probably take another two to three years to complete their mission.