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Israeli archaeologists find a treasure in a cave in the Judean Desert

Roughly 2,200 years ago, somebody hid a wooden box with 15 silver coins in a cave in the Judean Desert. The box would lie moldering in the crack into which it had been shoved until earlier this year, when it was found by archaeologists with the Israel Antiquities Authority carrying out surveys.

The find was made in Muraba’at Cave, now part of the Nahal Darga Nature Reserve by the Dead Sea (some call it the Wadi Darageh). The cave had famously sheltered Jews fleeing the Romans at the end of the ill-fated Bar Kochba revolt that began in 132 C.E. But these newly unearthed coins are the first solid evidence of people using the cave to hide centuries earlier, at the end of the Hasmonean period, the Israel Antiquities Authority says.

This season’s excavations in the cave, in the framework of the Judean Desert Excavation and Survey Project, began last March. The cave is a big one, about 100 meters (nearly 330 feet) deep, and archaeology is a painstaking profession, so the team “had been digging for almost two months when we found the treasure in May,” says the IAA’s Eitan Klein.

The excavation process involves gingerly and meticulously removing layers while keeping a sharp eye out for finds, he explains – and one can’t think of the cave like a room, with smooth walls and corners. It’s a convoluted, craggy, jagged place and at some point, excavating a previously unexplored spot, as they removed dirt from a crack – there it was, he says.

A moment of purple

The container was made of wood turned on a lathe, and though rare – if only because most wooden boxes from that period would long have returned to dust – such items aren’t unknown, Klein says. “A box like this was found in Ein Gedi, for instance, but it wasn’t as beautifully finished. Here and there, they do show up. But because they’re organic, only ones left in the deserts have survived.”

Okay. Having extracted the ancient box from the dirt filling the crack, the archaeologists prised off its lid – and were greeted by the sight of more dirt, with some small pebbles. So far, not the stuff of thrillers.

But below the dirt was a piece of woolen cloth dyed purple. Was it – could it have been – dyed with the royal purple, the precious dye extracted from the shell of the unfortunate Murex snail? Samples of textiles dyed with real purple, which is associated with the 1 percenters of biblical times, have been found in Timna (the ancient copper mine in the Negev anecdotally associated with King Solomon), from a thousand years before this box entered the world.

However, it cannot be said that this textile in the lathe-carved wooden container was that same precious royal purple because it remains to be analyzed, Klein says.

Anyway, below it, nestled lovingly in a clump of sheep’s wool, were the 15 coins. Before analysis, the coins had to be cleaned: they corrode after 2,200 years in a box, Klein notes. The coins were analyzed by Klein together with numismatist Gabriela Bijovsky.

As said, Muraba’at was known to have sheltered Jews fleeing from the Romans when the Bar Kochba revolt failed in 136 C.E. But once the coins were restored to their shiny original condition, the team was in for a shock. “Often, ancient coins bear inscriptions and symbols that help date them,” Klein says. These did – and, lo, they predated Bar Kochba by centuries.

All were silver tetradrachma minted by Ptolemy VI, king of Egypt. Three had been manufactured in 176-175 B.C.E., and the latest one was dated to 171-170 B.C.E., which is associated with the onset of the Maccabean Revolt following anti-Jewish decrees issued by the Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

Egypt had ruled Judea for a time many centuries earlier, but certainly not when these coins were minted. When Ptolemy VI reigned over Egypt, the Seleucid kingdom, including Judea, was under the scepter of his uncle Antiochus IV Epiphanes (aka “the Wicked”).

The name “Shalmai” in Aramaic script was found secondarily incised on one of the coins, the IAA says.

And thus, we have actual evidence of rebels fleeing to the Negev as the struggle between the Hellenistic regime and the Hasmoneans wound down. No evidence of that whatsoever has been found until now, Klein spells out, so the discovery was quite the surprise. “I was sure they’d be Bar Kochba coins,” he says.

Apropos, the contents of the box may seem bewildering: precious silver coins wrapped in wool, covered by purple textile no less, then dirt. Klein is not bewildered. For one thing, all that padding – which is what it boils down to – would protect the coins. Chiefly, though, Klein surmises that the owner was in flight and didn’t want his stash to rattle in the box.

That theory would also fit with the manner in which the treasure was hidden, and we can even speculate as to the fate of its owner – because they were still there after 2,200 years.

“It says in the Book of Maccabees that Jews fled to the desert, and now we have proven it true,” says Klein. “This is an absolutely unique find.”

“Then many who were seeking righteousness and justice went down to the wilderness to dwell there: they, their sons, their wives, and their cattle, because evils pressed heavily upon them. And it was reported to the king’s officers, and to the troops in Jerusalem in the city of David, that men who had rejected the king’s command had gone down to the hiding places in the wilderness. Many pursued them and overtook them; they encamped opposite them and prepared for battle against them on the sabbath day ... and they died, with their wives and children and cattle, about a thousand persons” (I Maccabees 2:29-37)

Maybe that is why the coins were still there, found with other stuff from times of yore – including fragments of rope and textiles, other coins that may be from the Bar Kochba period and even tiny fragments of scrolls, Klein reveals.

When the dig of the cave resumes later this month, they hope to find even more. However, it will be hard to beat some of the other artifacts found during the surveys in the desert. These include a large basket gorgeously weaved over 10,000 years ago, which, like the wooden box, survived thanks to having been abandoned in one of the drier places on Earth.

Ruth Schuster