Swords found in Judean Desert caves ranked as most exciting archaeology story of 2023

National Geographic gives top slot to discovery of 1,900-year-old, remarkably preserved Roman blades, likely cached by Bar Kochba rebels in one of 800 caves near Dead Sea

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

Archaeologists remove the swords from the rock crevice where they were hidden some 1,900 years ago in a cave in the Judean Desert. (Emil Aladjem/IAA)
Archaeologists remove the swords from the rock crevice where they were hidden some 1,900 years ago in a cave in the Judean Desert. (Emil Aladjem/IAA)

A rare find of four Roman swords discovered in a Judean Desert cave, announced by the Israel Antiquities Authority earlier this year, has been named the most exciting archaeological find of 2023 by National Geographic.

The swords were found inside a fissure in a cave near Ein Gedi National Park in the Dead Sea area in June. Estimated to be about 1,900 years old, the swords are believed to have been captured during the Bar Kochba revolt by Judean rebels and then concealed in a rock crevice.

The weapons are remarkably preserved and appear to have been undisturbed since they were originally placed in the cave. Three of the swords have blades ranging from 60 to 65 centimeters (23.5 to 25.5 inches) long. The fourth, of a different type, has a 45-centimeter (18-inch) blade. The archaeologists who investigated the swords reported that the blades were still sharp.

The swords are “an extremely rare find, the likes of which have never been found in Israel,” according to Dr. Eitan Klein, one of the archaeologists on the project.

Because of the dry climate the hilts and scabbards, made of wood and leather, were also intact. This preservation of organic matter could help pinpoint exactly where and when the swords were made, National Geographic noted.

“Roman literature doesn’t tell us the full story” of what happened during the Bar Kochba Revolt, Klein told The Times of Israel in September. “It’s up to archaeology to fill in the picture.”

The Judean Desert area contains over 800 caves, including the famous Qumran Caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the 1940s and 50s. Many of the caves contain archaeological remains, and for years the area has been targeted by looters who then sell the finds illegally.

One of the 1,900-year-old Roman spatha swords which was hidden, likely by Jewish rebels, in a cave in the Judean desert. (Dafna Gazit/IAA)

In an attempt to catalog and preserve the rich archaeological heritage of the area and prevent looting, the Judean Desert cave region is currently the subject of a multi-year project, the Judean Desert Archaeological Survey Team, conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Archaeology Department of the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria, and the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage.

The National Geographic “Seven of the Most Exciting Archaeological Discoveries in 2023” list was announced last week as part of the organization’s annual year in review. The number two find was a new statue discovered on Easter Island, and number three was the discovery of a previously unknown Mayan city in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

Two more items on the National Geographic 2023 archaeology list have ties to the Middle East.

One is the discovery of a now-sunken Roman-era temple, off the coast of Italy near Naples. The site is thought to have been associated with the Nabateans, the tribe of merchants who traded spices and other goods from the east to the Romans, built Petra in Jordan, and had a series of caravan towns in the Negev now known as the “Incense Route.”

The other Middle East-related item was the unearthing of two mummification workshops in the Saqqara necropolis, just north of Cairo in Egypt. These workshops, one for mummifying humans and one for animals, were found complete with instruments and remnants of chemicals used in the process.

Melanie Lidman contributed to this report.

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