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Archaeology in Israel: Cave of the Treasure

The "Cave of the Treasure" is located on a cliff in a canyon that descends through the Judean Desert to the Dead Sea, some 10 km. southwest of Ein-Gedi. This is an extremely hot, dry region which helped to preserve the archeological finds.

In the Judean Desert expedition of 1960-1961, tens of caves in the canyons were searched and several of them excavated. The Cave of the Treasure is a natural cave with a broad opening on the cliffside. Its mouth is some 50 m. below the top of the cliff that drops another 250 m. to the bed of the canyon. In the past, a narrow path along the cliff led to the cave, but it collapsed from erosion and rock falls. The excavators had to reach the cave by means of a ladder.

This cave, like others in the region, was inhabited in the Chalcolithic period (4th millenium BCE) and deep occupation layers, mainly of ash and refuse, were found, including many artifacts: crude hand-made clay vessels decorated with red paint, typical of the period; globular stone grinding and pounding vessels; flint implements used for cutting and as arrowheads; bone implements such as awls; and necklaces of shell, bone and semi-precious stones. Portions of a loom built of wooden beams, stone and clay loom weights, spatulas showing signs of use, spindle whorls, and cloth pieces of woven linen and wool were found, as well as wooden artifacts, strainers, portions of straw mats, ropes and basketry and even part of a leather garment and the sole of a sandal. The botanical finds attest to the food of the inhabitants of the cave: wheat and barley, lentils, olives and dates. Faunal remains include bones of sheep and goats, hunted animals such as deer and ibex, and a variety of birds. In this cave and in the one next to it, burials of men, women and children, placed in pits with pottery vessels, were uncovered.

The Hoard

At a depth of approximately 2 m. below the present floor, a crevice in the northern wall of the cave was found. In it, wrapped in a reed mat, was a hoard of 429 artifacts, all made of copper, except for a very few of stone or ivory. They were undamaged and well preserved, despite the fact that they had been hidden there over 5,500 years ago. These artifacts were produced by casting and hammering techniques of a very high level. The dating of the hoard to the Chalcolithic period was based on comparison with finds from other sites of this period. The similarity with the decorative motifs on ceramic ossuaries associated with this period in other regions is noteworthy. The dating was confirmed by Carbon 14 testing of the reed mat as 3500-2800 BCE.

The hoard of copper artifacts includes implements of many forms and with a variety of decorations:

Tools: chisels and axes of various sizes (15-35 cm.), some elongated and flat and some short and thick.

Mace heads: some 240 mace heads of various size (3–6 cm. in diameter, weighing between 100–700 gm.), no two identical. They are of many shapes – globular, flattened, disk-shaped and spiked; highly polished, some with impressed or protruding decoration; all perforated from top to bottom for a wooden handle (some fragments of these were found). There are also several maceheads made of haenatite.

Standards: 80 of these, 10-40 cm. long and 2-3 cm. in diameter; some hollow and some solid. Many are decorated with engraved lines, herringbone pattern, or globular or flat protrusions; some are decorated with images of animals such as ibex, deer, squab, wild goat and birds.

Crowns: ten crowns, similar in form, but varying in size: 15.5-19 cm. in diameter, 9-17.5 cm. in height, 930-1,970 gm. in weight. The walls are concave, decorated with herringbone and spiral patterns. On top of the crowns protrude architectural motifs (gates), animals and birds, a human face and prominent horns.

Other bronze implements in the hoard include small baskets with high, arc-shaped handles and horns.

Among the finds are several unique objects made of hippopotamus ivory. Shaped like a scythe, they are 30-40 cm. long (one exceptional example is 55 cm. long, 7 cm. wide and weighs 800 gm.). They are flat and have rows of drilled holes (47-73 each). At the center is a large hole with a ridge around it. They may have been carried on cultic standards of wooden poles, inserted into the central hole.


The quantity of dwelling remains and the nature of the finds (apart from the objects of the hoard) attest to the cave's occupation over an extended period of time. Caves were frequently inhabited in the Chalcolithic period, but the researchers concluded that these cave dwellers were not refugees in a temporary hiding place. The caves in the region seem to have been inhabited mainly in the spring grazing season; on the plateau above the cave an enclosure was found, measuring 37 x 27 m., surrounded by a low stone fence. One view is that this was a cultic center, but more probably it was a pen for livestock.

The forms of the artifacts in the hoard and the variety of artistic motifs indicate that these were cultic objects. Some of the decorations attest to a fertility cult. They also provide rich evidence of the artistic abilities of the population of this region in the Chalcolithic period. Their cultic rituals undoubtedly included prayers to the gods for success in hunting, in grazing their flocks and in agriculture, as well as for protection from enemies. The great quantity and variety of finds could be indicative of an organized socio-political and religious hierarchy and of the nature of the rituals performed in a temple of the region. There is also evidence of a large number of participants in religious rituals and festivals. The copper objects of the hoard weigh many tens of kilograms, the value of which was obviously enormous at the time, since use of copper had only just begun in the Chalcholithic period, and its production was a long and expensive process.

Anthropological study of the skeletons found in the cave show that the population was not of local origin; the technological attributes and decorations of the artifacts may have their origin in Mesopotamia.

It is not clear why the hoard was deposited in this cave. The vessels were probably used in a central regional temple, possibly in the Chalcolithic temple discovered on a terrace above Ein Gedi, which was found completely empty (see Archeological Sites in Israel No. 4, pp. 34-35). It has been proposed that the priests of that temple, or the inhabitants of the region, assembled the temple's cultic objects at a time of approaching danger and hid them in the cave for safekeeping. The fate of the Chalcolithic inhabitants is also not known. They may have fled, or been killed, leaving the hoard safely behind, to be discovered by Israeli archeologists.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry