The latest in a series looking at history through a single object in the archaeology collections at the Israel Museum
In April, 1961, a small group of Israeli archaeologists were in a cave high above a dry riverbed in the Judean Desert. They were looking for Dead Sea scrolls.
The archaeologists were part of an expedition made up of several teams searching for ancient Jewish texts like those found at nearby Qumran — a mission deemed so important to the young state of Israel that the government had put soldiers and military helicopters at their disposal. One photograph of the time shows the expedition leaders, including the famed archaeologist Yigael Yadin and a uniformed general, conferring in a tent by the light of a lantern, plotting the digs like a military operation.
The team in this particular cave was led by Pessah Bar Adon, a grizzled pipe-smoker who had previously spent time living with Bedouin tribesmen in the Negev. More prominent archaeologists on the expedition had been given more promising sites to explore than this one, nearly inaccessible on one of the steep sides of Wadi Mishmar.
The diggers, who were bivouacked in army tents on a plateau above the riverbed, had roped down the perilous cliff face into the cave mouth. Deep in the cave, a large boulder blocked the way. They pried it out and watched as it plunged 100 yards to the floor of the riverbed.
They found no scrolls. Instead, wrapped in a straw mat, they found 429 objects that someone had hidden 6,500 years ago — one of the greatest prehistoric treasure troves that has ever come to light and a find that altered our understanding of the lives and culture of some of Israel’s ancient residents.
The artifact pictured here, one item from the hoard, is a mace head that scholars believe would have been mounted on a wooden pole and perhaps used in a religious ritual. It depicts an exquisite double ibex, inspired by the horned creatures whose descendants still roam the same area today. It is made of a kind of copper that includes traces of antimony and arsenic and is almost certainly not local.
The hoard, much of which is on display in a glass case in one of the prehistory galleries at the Israel Museum, includes scepters, statuettes, horn-shaped pieces of carved ivory pocked with dozens of round holes, copper orbs and other mysterious items whose purpose has been lost to time.
The double ibex was made using a complicated wax and ceramic mold. The copper appears to have been imported from eastern Turkey or the Caucasus. The object, and the others found with it, made it clear that the local civilization of the time was far more sophisticated than had previously been thought.
The residents of Israel around 4,500 B.C.E., the Chalcolithic period, lived in a society that had irrigated fields, domesticated grapes and wheat. They had begun to make dairy products, like cheese. They buried their dead in small clay ossuaries, some of them shaped like fanciful human figures.
They predated recorded history by more than 1,000 years, so little more is known about them. The Israelites are thought to have arrived in the land of Canaan more than three millennia later.
The key to understanding the trove, scholars believe, might lie eight kilometers to the north, at the desert oasis of Ein Gedi, where archaeologists have uncovered a Chalcolithic-era temple. According to this theory, the temple priests spirited their ritual objects from the sanctuary at a time of danger and hid them in a place where they thought they would never be found. They were almost right.
“At 2 p.m. on the eighth day of our work in the cave, one of the students, Ruth Pecherski, and one of the soldiers, Freddy Halperin, came upon the top of a sloping stone covering a natural niche in the northern wall of chamber B,” wrote Bar Adon, the team leader, in his log of the 1961 dig. The removal of the large boulder had allowed the team to reach the back of the cave.
“This covering stone was flawed at the edges, so that at the very first glance several metal objects could be seen glinting through the cracks. We at once set about clearing away the loose earth all around the stone, until the whole of it was exposed. Then darkness forced us to stop working for the night. Early the next morning we started to lay bare the hoard,” he wrote.
The trove from the cave – which has come to be called the “Cave of the Treasure” – is fascinating because it poses at least as many questions as it answers, said Osnat Misch-Brandl, the museum curator in charge of Chalcolithic artifacts.
“There are hundreds of metal objects, and though metal seems simple to us, then it was precious,” she said. “How did people so long ago make these objects, and why did they make such an effort to take this whole load and bury it in a hole at the end of the world? And why make these beautiful things in the first place? Who were these people? And what did they look like?
“Looking at these objects, we want to know all of these things — these people were our ancestors, after all,” she said.