NAHAL TZE’ELIM — As the sun beat down overhead, we clamber one at a time down the gravelly slope of the wadi toward the Cave of the Skulls. In a cavern over 800 feet above the floor of this desert canyon, archaeologists have been toiling to salvage meager clues about life nearly 2,000 years ago and maybe, with luck, uncover the ultimate find: scrolls.
Before rounding the cliffside to the cave’s yawning maw, an acrid animal odor strikes the nostrils, then the metronomic rattle of sifting and chatter of dozens of workers comes into focus. The site is a hive of activity, with volunteers and archaeologists digging in the far reaches of the cavern and hauling carefully labeled buckets of soil to the entrance, where it’s sifted, sorted and cataloged with meticulous precision. A constant pall of fine dust chokes the air, requiring the use of blue surgical masks. Everyone is caked in dun dirt, their faces like miners’.
Sixty years after initial scientific surveys of the caves in the Judean Desert, the Israel Antiquities Authority on Thursday wrapped up three weeks of excavations at one of the largest caverns in the limestone cliffs of Nahal Tze’elim. It’s the biggest undertaking of its kind in the arid region south of Jerusalem since the 1960s.
The dozens of caves lining the gorges provided shelter for Judean rebels and refugees during the revolt against the Roman Empire in the second century CE. In a cave not far from the excavations, archaeologists in 1960 found papyrus letters from the Bar Kochba revolt of 132-136. The Cave of the Skulls was so named after the remains of seven people were found inside during surveys in 1953.
Today, scientists hope to learn more about the people who inhabited the caves during the second Judean revolt against Rome, which resulted in the exile of Jews, and Emperor Hadrian’s renaming Jerusalem Aelia Capitolina and Judea Syria Palestina.
The limestone cavern is cool even in the sweltering early-June heat. The arid atmosphere and stable temperature provide an ideal environment for the preservation of organic materials that would otherwise decompose, including parchment, papyrus, cloth and rope. An IAA sting in 2009 busted an antiquities thief in Jerusalem in possession of a papyrus scroll, which he said was plundered from the Cave of the Skulls, prompting state archaeologists to move to protect the site. The text said it was written “four years after the destruction of Israel,” leading scholars to believe that it dated to 138 or 139 CE, four years after the Bar Kochba uprising was crushed.
The urgency to plumb the site’s depths was heightened two years ago, when the IAA’s antiquities theft prevention unit busted six Palestinians trying to steal artifacts from the cave. Among the objects found in their possession was a Roman-era lice comb, but the robbers were likely after more profitable items such as scrolls. The plundering of the cave caused “critical damage to archaeological remains, and irreversible damage to archaeological strata,” the indictment against the men charged.
The six, residents of the West Bank, were eventually found guilty by an Israeli court and sentenced to 18 months in prison.
After the bust, the IAA decided to go on the offensive but lying in wait to catch thieves red-handed in a landscape like the Judean Desert is a game of whack-a-mole. The excavation in the Cave of the Skulls aims not only to glean what valuable scientific information remains, but also salvage any artifacts — scrolls included — that may still be inside.
Amir Ganor, head of the IAA’s antiquities theft prevention unit and one of the leaders of the dig, hailed the excavation as “very successful,” saying the dig already turned up tiny scraps of papyrus. It wasn’t clear just yet whether they bore inscriptions, however, he noted Wednesday.
Uri Davidovich, a post-doctoral research fellow at Tel Aviv University and Hebrew University, headed the dig. Taking a break from overseeing the sorting and examination of tiny fragments from amid soil and pebbles, he explained that the excavation yielded a trove of items shedding light on daily life for the inhabitants of the cave, likely refugees fleeing the Roman army during the second Jewish revolt against Rome.
“Among the things connected to day-to-day life were pottery fragments and a few stone tools, [but] mostly the objects that characterize the Judean Desert caves — where, because of the dry conditions, organic materials are preserved — textiles, cords, fabrics, braids, leather and wood items,” he said over the bustle of activity. Also on that list were spindle whorls for weaving, awls, and scraps of leather and papyrus, and a wooden comb (“what’s more intimate than that?” Davidovich said). The vast majority of the finds were animal bones, some the remnants of the Judeans’ dinner, others brought in by hyenas or other wild animals over the centuries. A few human bones were unearthed as well.
Davidovich speculated that several dozen refugees likely lived in the cave for several months during the tumultuous period of Rome’s crackdown on the uprising. They probably came from villages south of modern-day Hebron, several kilometers north of the cave, bringing food and water with them. (There’s also a spring at the bottom of the gorge, about 250 meters below.)
Despite the significant damage inflicted on the site by looters, Davidovich said there was still “archaeological meat” to be picked off the bones and other artifacts to be studied by scientists.
What sets the diggers apart from the looters is not just their objectives and intentions, but their methodology, explained Micka Ullman, a Hebrew University archaeologist specializing in speleology, or the study of caves. She was one of the handful of archaeologists on site. Surrounded by a stack of notebooks, she was tasked with painstakingly recording the precise location of each object’s discovery, layer by layer.
“The key word is context,” Ullman said. “A coin found in context is worth a thousand times more [to science] than one found without.”
Sixty years ago, much of the seemingly insignificant material archaeologists hold on to today — olive stones, seeds and other fragments of organic material — would have been cast away and ignored. Specialists at the Hebrew University’s labs will undertake the Sisyphean endeavor of scrutinizing those tiny objects to suss out data that will help construct a larger portrait of the cave’s inhabitants.
Volunteers from around the country and the world enlisted to assist in the IAA’s excavations. Nearly 500 in total cycled through over the course of the three-week dig, some staying a day or two and others a week or more. Some, such as Hadas Levmore, 35, of Jerusalem, had no experience in archaeology, but were captivated by the opportunity to participate.
“I’ve been reading a few books on archaeology lately, so I decided to go,” she said. It was her first day on the site, and even though “most of what’s here is poop — bat poop, bird poop,” she’s still as interested as ever in the science.
Hai Ashkenazi, an engineer-turned-Tel Aviv University doctoral student, joined to lend a hand to his colleagues running the dig. At the end of a day at the office in his previous job, his brain was fried, he said. “Here at the end of the day your body is wiped but your head is clear.”
Ganor, the IAA official, said that his organization tentatively approved funding for an additional season of excavations in Nahal Tze’elim, but that plans had yet to be drawn up.
Visiting the dig was a chance to reveal the backbreaking, unromantic side of archaeology — the real hard labor and menial attention to the kind of detail that doesn’t make it into headlines and is ignored in fiction like Indiana Jones. The team at the Cave of the Skulls found no golden chalices, no monumental temples, not even a much-sought-after scroll. Perhaps in a year, after extensive study of the materials from the Cave of the Skulls, they may have a bit more insight into the period.