Israeli spelunkers stumbled across a menorah and a cross etched into the limestone walls of an ancient cistern, both of which are believed to date back centuries, the Israel Antiquities Authority said in a statement Tuesday.
A group of Israel Caving Club members were exploring hidden caves in the Judean lowlands over the weekend when they discerned the limestone carvings: a three-footed menorah with seven branches similar to the one that stood in the Jerusalem temple, a cross, and a depiction of an ancient key. Other as yet unidentified carvings were also found, the IAA said.
The IAA refused to disclose the name of the site, or any specifics concerning its location, in order to prevent people from flocking to the new discovery and potentially damaging it.
The organization’s announcement highlighted the fact that the discovery of the menorah was made over the Hanukkah festival, when Jews light candelabras to commemorate the restoration of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.
“We heard there are interesting caves in the region. We began to peer into them, and that’s how we came to this cave, which is extremely impressive with rock-carved niches and engravings on the wall,” Ido Meroz, one of the hikers, said in a statement.
“Just before we were about to return we suddenly noticed an engraving that at first glance seemed to be a menorah. When we realized this is an ancient depiction of a menorah, we became very excited. Its appearance was quite distinct.”
Sa’ar Ganor, an archaeologist with the IAA responsible for the region around Ashkelon, studied the engravings and determined that the menorah was likely carved sometime during the Second Temple period — about 530 BCE to 70 CE — and the cross likely in the Byzantine period, around the fourth century CE.
“It’s rare to find a wall engraving of a menorah,” which is a “distinct Jewish symbol,” Ganor said. The IAA said that only two menorah engravings exist in the region where it was found: one in an oil press at Beit Loya and the other in a tomb near Beit Guvrin — both east of the modern city of Kiryat Gat.
“It’s impossible to date an etching specifically,” Ganor told The Times of Israel. “It’s not pottery; you can’t use carbon-14 dating.” But a previously studied archaeological site located in close proximity to the cistern dates to the late Roman and Byzantine period. During those periods there were Jews and Christians living in the settlement, perhaps simultaneously during the later years.
“It could be that there were families that converted to Judaism from Christianity,” he suggested. “Or there may have been families that were both Christian and Jewish.” Why they might have carved the images into an inaccessible cistern remains uncertain.
Ganor said that because of the difficulty in accessing the cistern where the carvings were found, the patina inside the etchings, and the fact that they jibe with the historical context of the site, there’s a strong likelihood that the carvings are authentic and not modern.
The IAA has already started studying the cistern’s engravings and plans additional research.