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Archaeology'It's not every day that you walk onto an Indiana Jones set'

Frozen in time: 3,300-year-old burial cave from Ramses II era found at popular beach

During construction work at Palmachim National Park near Tel Aviv, a fallen rock reveals an ancient treasure trove from the era of the biblically notorious pharoah

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • Preliminary IAA inspection of the 3,300-year-old cave at Palmachim National Park, September 13, 2022. (Emil Eljam/IAA)
    Preliminary IAA inspection of the 3,300-year-old cave at Palmachim National Park, September 13, 2022. (Emil Eljam/IAA)
  • Palmachim National Park (Shlomi Amram/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Palmachim National Park (Shlomi Amram/Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Preliminary IAA inspection of the 3,300-year-old cave at Palmachim National Park, September 13, 2022. (Emil Eljam/IAA)
    Preliminary IAA inspection of the 3,300-year-old cave at Palmachim National Park, September 13, 2022. (Emil Eljam/IAA)
  • Preliminary IAA inspection of the 3,300-year-old cave at Palmachim National Park, September 13, 2022. (Emil Eljam/IAA)
    Preliminary IAA inspection of the 3,300-year-old cave at Palmachim National Park, September 13, 2022. (Emil Eljam/IAA)
  • Palmachim National Park (Shlomi Amram/Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Palmachim National Park (Shlomi Amram/Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Preliminary IAA inspection of the 3,300-year-old cave at Palmachim National Park, September 13, 2022. (Emil Eljam/IAA)
    Preliminary IAA inspection of the 3,300-year-old cave at Palmachim National Park, September 13, 2022. (Emil Eljam/IAA)

A team of archaeologists was essentially transported back in time when it entered an untouched 3,300-year-old cave at the Palmachim National Park, just south of Tel Aviv, last week. The vast array of discovered items date to the Late Bronze Age, close to or during the rein of the biblically notorious Ramses II.

The cave was spotted when a rock shifted during the course of construction work and light was literally shed on an intact burial assembly about 2.5 meters (eight feet) below. Israel Antiquities Authority inspectors were called to the scene and their excitement is felt in a Hebrew-language video recording an initial inspection of a place no person has walked for more than three millennia.

“Simply amazing,” said IAA’s Uzi Rothschild repeatedly as “Wow, wow,” is heard in the background. “There are jars inside the jars! Wow!” said another voice. “Unbelievable!” said Rothschild.

The excitement peaks even as the video ends with the discovery of potentially multiple skeletons in the corner of the square-shaped cave.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime find! It’s not every day that you walk onto an Indiana Jones set — a cave with tools on the floor that haven’t been touched in 3,300 years,” IAA Bronze Age expert Eli Yannai said in a press release.

Yannai believes the vessels were imported from Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus, which he said was common for burial assemblages of the era. Dozens of pottery vessels of different sizes and shapes were found, including deep and shallow bowls, some of which are painted red, some holding bones; cooking pots; jugs and clay oil lamps that still held their burnt wicks.

Other organic materials may have disintegrated over the millennia, including a likely quiver that held an array of bronze arrowheads or spearheads that were found in the cave.

These are hardly the first archaeological finds from the popular beach park, where there are remains of settlements through the Muslim era. The park holds a designated archaeology trail, which celebrates, among other structures, an ancient fortress that protected the coastline some 3,500 years ago when it was populated by Canaanites, vassals of the ruling Egyptians. Since 1992, archaeologists have dug intermittently at the site and earlier construction there revealed a quarry contemporary to the newly discovered cave.

Merneptah Stele, circa 1208 BCE, known as the Israel stela, was discovered in 1896 and is now found in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. (CC-BY-SA, via wikipedia)

Yannai dates the finds in the cave date to the 13th century BCE (Late Bronze Age IIB), or roughly the period that most date the biblical Exodus story in which Rameses II is often cast as the hard-hearted pharoah who would not let Moses’s people go.

While there is no direct evidence of Rameses II in Israel, a stele attributing victory over the Canaanites by his son, Merneptah, was discovered in 1896. The stele is considered the earliest textual reference to “Israel” found outside the Holy Land.

“In this period, in the long reign of the Nineteenth Egyptian Dynasty Pharaoh Rameses II, the Egyptian Empire controlled Canaan, and the Egyptian administration provided secure conditions for extensive international trade. These economic and social processes are reflected in the burial cave that contains pottery vessels imported from Cyprus and from Ugarit on the northern Syrian coast, as well as from nearby coastal towns, including Yafo (Jaffa), Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gaza and Tel Ajjul, clearly showing that the population of Yavneh-Yam (Palmahim Beach), played an integral part in the lively trading activity that took place along the coast,” he said.

Preliminary IAA inspection of the 3,300-year-old cave at Palmachim National Park, September 13, 2022. (Emil Eljam/IAA)

“The fact that the cave was sealed, and not looted in later periods, allows us, with the scientific means available today, to extract a great deal of information from the objects and materials that survived in them, and which are not visible to the eye, including organic materials. The cave can provide us with a complete picture of burial customs in the Late Bronze Age,” said Yannai.

Despite a requested media blackout until Sunday morning when social media began buzzing with the find on Friday, the initial preliminary video tour went viral even as IAA teams attempted to reseal the cave to prevent damage and theft prior to scientific excavation.

Preliminary IAA inspection of the 3,300-year-old cave at Palmachim National Park, September 13, 2022. (Emil Eljam/IAA)

Unfortunately, some items were stolen before the resealing was completed, according to IAA head Eli Eskozido.

“Shortly before the cave was sealed, and despite guarding it, a number of archaeological items were stolen from the cave, and the matter is under investigation,” he said in a statement.

The IAA told The Times of Israel that the IAA and several universities are now in talks to begin formulating plans for a full excavation of the remarkable site.

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