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Judean Desert Caves

Following the discovery of the *Dead Sea Scrolls in the *Qumran caves, frantic searches for additional documents were carried out by Bedouin in all the caves of the valleys in the area of the Dead Sea. As a result of evidence of such activities by Arab infiltrators from Jordanian territory into the territory of Israel, an expedition directed by Y. Aharoni set out to survey the area (November–December 1953). This was followed by a full-scale expedition, divided into four groups, which was undertaken jointly by the Hebrew University, the Israel Department of Antiquities, and the Israel Exploration Society, assisted by the Israel Defense Forces. In two campaigns (March 24–April 5, 1960; March 15–27, 1961) caves were explored in the valleys between Masada and En-Gedi as far as the Jordanian border. The investigations revealed two major periods of occupation in the Judean Desert Caves – during the Chalcolithic period and as shelters at the time of the Bar Kokhba War (132–135); some had also been inhabited during the First Jewish War (66–70/73). Expedition A, directed by N. Avigad, explored the vicinity of En-Gedi, clearing burial caves from the Second Temple period (including one which contained a wooden sarcophagus inlaid with bone ornaments) and the "Cave of the Pool," which had been inhabited by refugees who had constructed a reservoir to ensure a sufficient water supply; they apparently survived and left the cave when the danger had passed. Expedition B, directed by Y. Aharoni, investigated the caves of Naḥal Ẓe'elim where they discovered several biblical texts and Greek papyri containing lists of names. They also explored the "Cave of Horror" on the southern bank of Naḥal Ḥever where some 40 fugitives took refuge at the end of the Bar Kokhba War. A Roman camp was perched above them on the cliff. In the end the besieged succumbed from lack of water; they buried their dead and made a bonfire of their possessions, apparently choosing to die rather than surrender. Expedition C, led by P. Bar-Adon, explored the "Cave of the Treasure" in the Mishmar Valley. The main finds dated to the Chalcolithic period and consisted of a cache of 429 objects, 416 of copper, six of hematite, six of ivory, and one of stone. These included 240 mace heads of metal, six of hematite, one of stone, about 20 metal chisels and axes, 80 metal wands, ten metal "crowns" ornamented with birds and gate-like structures, five sickle-shaped objects made from hippopotamus teeth, and a box of elephant tusks. These were apparently ritual articles and may represent the treasures of a temple which were hidden from or by robbers. Other finds in this cave include plant remains, among them grains of emmer, which is the "missing link" between wild emmer and durum wheat. Expedition D, under Y. Yadin, worked in the "Cave of the Letters" on the northern bank of Naḥal Ḥever. In this cave, also guarded from above by a Roman camp, Jonathan b. Bayan, one of Bar Kokhba's commanders at En-Gedi, took refuge together with his family which included a woman named Babatha. Objects found here included 19 metal vessels (a patera, jugs, and incense shovels), apparently booty from the Romans; several glass plates, a great number of keys, clothing, sandals, etc., as well as palm mats, a hunting net, and wool for working. Together with these articles were hidden 15 letters from Bar Kokhba to the commanders of En-Gedi, and an archive of 35 documents (17 in Greek; 6 in Nabatean; 3 in Aramaic; and 9 in Greek with Nabatean or Aramaic subscriptions). They are dated to 93/4–132 and represent the family and property archives of Babatha who was related by marriage to the Jonathan mentioned above. The absence of jewelry or coins in the cave together with the meticulous care with which the objects were cached suggests that the inhabitants of the cave survived and left it in the end.

Along with the finds at the Murabba'at caves these discoveries have revolutionized the conception of the Bar Kokhba War and have opened new vistas on the material and religious culture of the Chalcolithic period. By providing precisely dated material they are of great significance for the archaeology of the Roman and talmudic periods.


Avigad et al., in IEJ, 11 (1961), 1ff.; 12 (1962), 176ff.; Y. Yadin, The Finds from the Bar Kokhba Period in the Cave of Letters (1963); Aharoni et al., in Atiqot, 3 (1961), 148ff.; P. Bar-Adon, in: Seker Yehudah, Shomron ve-Golan, Seker Arkheologi 19678 (1972); idem, in: Eretz Israel, 10, Sefer Ha-Nasi Shazar (1971); I. Blake, in: Illustrated London News, 4/3 (1967), 27–29; P. Bar-Adon: Revue Biblique, 79 (1972), 411–13. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: H. Eshel and D. Amit, Refuge Caves of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (1998); L. Wexler (ed.), Surveys and Excavations of Caves in the Northern Judean Desert (CNJD)1993,Atiqot, 41, parts 1–2 (2002).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.