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Rare Roman weapons cache uncovered in Judean Desert

Researchers believe the weapons were hidden near Ein Gedi by Judean rebels during the revolt against Rome.

Roman swords that are 1,900 years old have been found in a cave near Ein Gedi in the Judean Desert. Credit: Kobi Natan/TPS.
Roman swords that are 1,900 years old have been found in a cave near Ein Gedi in the Judean Desert. Credit: Kobi Natan/TPS.

A cache of weapons believed to have been hidden by Jews during their revolt against the Romans nearly two millennia ago has been uncovered in the Judean Desert, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced on Wednesday.

The cache, comprising four well-preserved 1,900-year-old Roman swords and a shafted weapon, were found in a crevice in a cave in the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve near the Dead Sea about two months ago. They were apparently hidden by Judean rebels after being seized from the Roman army, according to researchers.

“We’re talking about an extremely rare find, the likes of which have never been found in Israel,” Eitan Klein, one of the directors of the IAA’s Judean Desert Survey, said in a video accompanying the announcement of the discovery. “Four swords amazingly preserved, including the fine condition of the metal, the handles and the scabbards.”

“Finding a single sword is rare—so four? It’s a dream! We rubbed our eyes in disbelief,” the researchers said.

The weapons were discovered in a small, hidden cave in an area of isolated and inaccessible cliffs north of Ein Gedi, according to the IAA. The cave was already well-known to archaeologists, as it contains a stalactite with a fragmentary ink inscription written in ancient Hebrew script characteristic of the First Temple period.

The swords, which had well-fashioned handles made of wood or metal, were exceptionally well preserved, and three were found still sheathed in their wooden scabbards. Leather strips and wooden and metal parts belonging to the weapons were also found in the crevice.

The length of the blades of three swords was 60–65 centimeters, their dimensions identifying them as Roman spatha swords, and the fourth was shorter with a 45 centimeter blade, identified as a ring-pommel sword.

An initial examination of the weapons confirmed that these were standard swords employed by the Roman soldiers stationed in Judea in the Roman period.

“The hiding of the swords and the weapon in deep cracks in the isolated cave north of Ein Gedi, hints that the weapons were taken as booty from Roman soldiers or from the battlefield, and purposely hidden by the Judean rebels for reuse,” said Klein. “Obviously, the rebels did not want to be caught by the Roman authorities carrying these weapons,” he added.

Archaeologists will try to pinpoint the historical event that led to the caching of these weapons to determine whether it was indeed during the time of the Bar Kochba Revolt, he said.

The Bar Kochba revolt, which took place from 132-135 C.E., was a failed Jewish rebellion against Roman rule in Judea led by rebel leader Simon Bar Kochba.

The swords, which were exceptionally preserved due to the cool and arid climate of the desert caves, were dated based on their typology and have not yet undergone radiocarbon dating.

Following the discovery, an archaeological excavation was undertaken in the cave by the IAA, and artifacts dating to the Chalcolithic period (6,000 years ago) and the Roman period (2,000 years ago) were uncovered. At the entrance to the cave, a Bar Kochba bronze coin from the time of the revolt was found.

An article on the swords has been published in the volume “New Studies in the Archaeology of the Judean Desert: Collected Papers,” which explores new archaeological finds discovered in the Judean Desert Survey Project over the last six years.

“We are once again presented with thrilling findings from the Judean Desert that offer a glimpse into the daily lives of our ancestors who resided in this area about 2,000 years ago,” said Israeli Heritage Minister Rabbi Amichai Eliyahu. “The discovery of these swords within a cave, where a Hebrew inscription dating back to the time of the Temple was previously found, serves as further evidence of the enduring tradition of the people of Israel, emphasizing the significance of both the written word and the sword, symbolizing both our spiritual and physical heritage.”

Over the past six years, hundreds of caves have been searched in Israel, and 24 archaeological excavations have been carried out in selected caves, with the aim of saving the archaeological remains from the hands of looters.

“The Judean Desert never ceases to surprise us,” said Amir Ganor, a project director.

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