In May and June of 2016, Israeli authorities were conducting a three-week-long salvage excavation in the famous Cave of the Skulls, where seven human skulls and other skeletal remains were discovered in 1960 by Prof. Yohanan Aharoni. The May and June expedition was a joint venture done by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Their latest finds are causing quite a stir in the archaeological community: two papyri fragments, measuring two by two centimeters containing writing. There were a few other fragments, too, but those had no discernible letters. The fragments were discovered along a few more notable artifacts, including leather fragments, ropes, textiles, wooden objects and bone tools.
They’ve also found dozens of unique artifacts, some pottery shards, stone vessels, needles, cosmetic tolls, and hobnails.
Alongside these artifacts was one that has some researchers scratching their heads: a bundle that’s made up of a textile wrapped around a cluster of beads. They haven’t risked opening it for fear of disturbing the contents, but the team is planning on having it x-rayed to identify what’s inside. Just a little ways a way, archaeologists also found the largest collection of beads ever discovered in this area that date to the Chalcolithic period, a time that predates the Bronze Age, starting right around the late 5th millennia BC.
Archaeologists have even found a few wooden lice combs that can be dated back to the time of the Bar Kokhba revolt.
Who Was Living in the Caves?Considering the sheer amount of domestic artifacts discovered even in this one excavation and the thousands of remains of foodstuffs like wheat, barley, olives, palm dates, and pomegranates also found in the Judean Desert Caves, it begs the question: who was living here? The caves near the Dead Sea don’t exactly seem like the most hospital place to settle down.
Well, according to archaeologists and historical experts, these caves were used by Jewish warriors, rebels, and refugees 2,000 years ago to hide from Roman soldiers during the Roman occupation of Israel. There were three Jewish revolts during this time period against Roman occupation. Israel was under the direct control of the Hellenistic Roman Empire, and most of the Jews at the time weren’t too fond of that, with good reason. For a time, Judaism was even outlawed. Radical groups like the Sicarii tried to assassinate Roman officials in Israel and even stage coups, and eventually the temple of Jerusalem was completely destroyed, brick-by-brick in AD 70. During this time, many Jewish people took up refuge from the conflict in the caves surrounding the Dead Sea, including the Cave of the Skulls.
However, this doesn’t account for the thousands of artifacts discovered in the area that predate this period. A few researchers have some theories. Perhaps the caves were used by local shepherds or traders as seasonal homes. However, one of the leaders of the current research project at the Cave of the Skulls, Dr. Uri Davidovich of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has another theory.
“These caves are very difficult to access, and they were used in their natural forms without changes or modifications that would make them more convenient for prolonged occupation,” he explained, “This does not make sense when you think of ephemeral stays by shepherds or the like, but is much more plausible when you consider that they served as temporary refuge places.”
So, it’s likely that refugees had been occupying these caves for thousands of years, even before Roman-Jewish conflict.
Excavations at the Cave of the Skulls will continue. The IAA and Hebrew University suspect that several documents are hidden in the Judean Desert Caves, and they’re hoping to get to them before black-market salvagers do. They’re expecting more documents and text fragments to surface within the year.