IDF soldiers watchfully looked on during a daring rappelling operation along the Lebanon border on Friday. The mission — to save intact pottery vessels dating to over 2,000 years ago — was a success.
In a brief video of the rescue operation, we see climbers suspended in air, hitched to a doubled rope fixed to a point 30 meters up a sheer cliff. They make their way up the rocky surface and upon reaching the mouth of a cave, the slight figures barely fit through to rescue its precious contents.
The vessels are slid 30 meters down on ropes. The fragile finds, including two intact wine amphorae, several storage jars, a bowl, a cooking pot, and two juglets, were wrapped in bubble wrap and sent down in padded bags in a complex joint operation of the Zefat Academic College, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), the Israel Cave Research Center and the Israel Cave Explorers Club.
“I crossed my fingers every time” a pot was lowered, Dr. Danny Syon, senior archaeologist with the IAA, told The Times of Israel.
It was no mean feat, especially considering the leaders of the cliff cave excavation, Syon and Dr. Yinon Shivtiel of the Zefat Academic College, are both in their 60s. Syon, 64, was a rappelling instructor about 45 years ago, he told The Times of Israel. “Some things are like riding a bicycle,” said Syon.
Inside the small cave, 3 meters by 1.5, the team found an array of pottery of all sizes, large cooking vessels as well as upright wine containers, which were taking up all the floor space. “In the beginning I was doing acrobatics to not step on the pottery,” Syon laughed.
Shivtiel, 67, told The Times of Israel that he discovered the cave in 2017 among some 25 other natural hanging cliff caves about a year ago and discerned that there was something hiding inside. Aided by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the speleologist was conducting a survey in Western Galilee to locate caves that served as shelters and hiding places.
Shivtiel invited Syon to co-direct a high-wire excavation expedition, which was carried out on June 29 following a preliminary survey the week before.
After carefully removing the pots, the team excavated down to the rock floor of the cave, said Syon, and shifted dirt from one edge to the other. “I can safely say we recovered everything that was in the cave,” he said.
The pottery, Syon said, is very common in the Hellenistic period, between the 3rd and 1st centuries BCE, and found in the Galilee and all over Israel in all types of settlements. However, the fact that this cave location is relatively close to the seashore, he said, may point to a Phoenician provenance, but he is currently unaware of a Phoenician settlement near the cave.
Why the people were inhabiting the remote, death-defying cave, is a mystery.
“Considering that cooking and serving vessels were found, it would appear that those who brought them planned to live there for a while… It is mind boggling how the vessels were carried to the cave, which is extremely difficult to access. Maybe an easier way that once existed disappeared over time,” Syon said in an IAA press release.
“Once I home in on a closer dating I may be able to suggest why they would have wanted to hide in that little cave. In times of danger, people find refuge in remote places. It probably has something to do with one of the many wars and other nasty things happening in the Hellenistic period,” Syon told The Times of Israel.
Shivtiel, who has surveyed many of the cave dwellings of the Galilee over the past 30 years, said that according to his experience, “people who go to such a dangerous cave are under stress. They had to hide to live,” he said. These aren’t people going on vacation, he joked. “All the equipment we found in the cave was for survival,” said Shivtiel.
In the IAA press release, Shivtiel said the salvage operation was “the most complex operation I took part in within the framework of the Refuge Caves Survey that I have been conducting for 20 years. The cooperation between the Zefat Academic College, the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Cave Research Center again proved to work perfectly.”
Because the cave, whose exact location is not published, is located along the Lebanon border, Shivtiel said there was close cooperation with the IDF, which guarded the researchers.
The pottery is now in the IAA’s Acre labs awaiting more analysis. Some of the vessels have organic remains. Syon said the team hopes to conduct carbon-14 dating, as well as residue analysis, “a new technique to sample what was at the bottom of the containers.”
In the meantime, this cliffhanger adventure must end with, “To be continued.”