Alexander the Great was dead and his heirs were wrangling for control of his now-fractured empire. In the tumult that ensued, an affluent family living in what’s now northern Israel sought to save their fortune and hid a purse of valuables in a remote stalactite cave.
The trove, comprising rare types of silver jewelry, a couple of coins, and black-and-white agate beads hidden in a lamp, lay undisturbed in the limestone cave for over 2,300 years until a group of Israeli spelunkers happened upon them last month.
The rare find sheds light on the lives of ordinary people during the late 4th century BCE, experts said Sunday. That stalactites formed over some of the pottery will help geologists better understand the rate of their growth.
Reuven Zakai, his son Chen, and a friend, spelunking enthusiasts with the Israeli Caving Club, ventured deep into the remote chasm in February. The muddy floor was littered with pottery fragments dating back millennia, and after a couple of hours of exploration they turned back toward the entrance.
“We saw another fissure,” Zakai told The Times of Israel at the Israel Antiquities Authority’s labs in Jerusalem. It was barely wide enough to squeeze through, but Chen reached in and felt the two coins atop a boulder lodged inside. The rest of the treasure was below.
Zakai has been exploring caves for years, but said he’d never found anything like this.
“You find here and there pieces of pottery and such, but a trove on a level like this where someone hid all their valuables — it was elating,” he said.
Because the cave, in an undisclosed location up north, was well trafficked by visitors, the three gathered up their find and contacted the IAA. They returned with archaeologists Friday and found the remainder of the hoard.
As Dr. Eitan Klein explained the significance of the discovery, he perceived a previously unnoticed tiny fragment of the cloth in which it was wrapped in antiquity. Though the sack long since disintegrated, the treasure remained: five silver bracelets, a set of ornate earrings, two signets — one of stone and another of glass — eight white-and-black agate beads and two silver coins bearing the visage of Alexander the Great.
Alexander, clad in the skin of the Nemean Lion, assumes the persona of Heracles, and a seated Zeus is on the obverse. Numismatists were still working to determine when and where, precisely, the coins were minted, which will help date the trove more accurately.
Klein said that a set of beads like the ones found nested in a clay oil lamp was particularly rare: “They look brand new, like they were just bought.”
Holding one of the silver rings up in his gloved hand, Klein said that it was of a previously unknown style, and that it would help pinpoint the date of future finds of its kind.
“These items were valuable to these people. They didn’t make an effort, enter an inaccessible cave, crawl deep inside and hide it in a hard-to-reach fissure for nothing,” Dr. Eitan Klein, deputy director of the Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery, said.
That the trove wasn’t retrieved suggests its owners didn’t survive to return.
Klein said the owners were likely fairly well off, as the objects were of considerable worth. “These items were expensive, both in ancient times and today.”
“This is the first time we find evidence of people fleeing [their homes] during the period of Alexander the Great and his successors and hiding in caves,” he said.
Amir Ganor, head of the IAA’s theft busting operations, praised the spelunkers’ “exemplary civic behavior” in reporting the find.
“After the gold treasure from Caesarea, this is the second time in the past month that citizens have reported significant archeological finds and we welcome this important trend,” Ganor said in a statement. Their actions will help “expand the existing archaeological knowledge about the development of society and culture in the Land of Israel in antiquity.”
Archaeologists were set to begin a comprehensive study of the cave, which during a cursory examination over the weekend has already yielded artifacts believed to date back 6,000 years.
“There could be surprises,” Klein said.