A team of Israeli researchers has made a remarkable discovery of four ancient Roman swords and a javelin in a cave near the Dead Sea. The weapons, which date back to the second century CE, were hidden in a crevice by Judean rebels who had taken them from the Roman army as spoils of war.
A dramatic and exciting discovery
The researchers, who belong to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), Ariel University, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, were originally in the cave to photograph an ancient Hebrew inscription on a stalactite. However, they noticed a well-preserved Roman pilum, or javelin, in a deep crack in the rocks. They also found pieces of wood that turned out to be parts of the swords’ scabbards, or sheaths.
The team reported the finding and returned with another group to survey all the crevices in the cave. They then uncovered four swords, three of which were still in their wooden scabbards. The swords were identified as Roman spatha, or long swords, with iron blades measuring 60-65 cm (24-26 inches) in length. The fourth sword was a ring-pommel sword, with a shorter blade of 45 cm (18 inches). The swords had handles made of wood or metal, and leather strips and fragments of wood and metal belonging to them were also found.
“This is a dramatic and exciting discovery, touching on a specific moment in time,” said Eli Escusido, director of the IAA, in a statement. He added that the dry desert climate around the Dead Sea enabled the preservation of artifacts that would not survive elsewhere in Israel. “This is a unique time capsule, whereby fragments of scrolls, coins from the Jewish Revolt, leather sandals, and now even swords in their scabbards, sharp as if they had only just been hidden away today.”
A story of empire and rebellion
The cave where the weapons were found is located on a cliff overlooking the Dead Sea, north of the En Gedi oasis in eastern Israel. It is one of the many caves in the area that have yielded important archaeological discoveries, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient manuscripts.
Archaeologists believe that the swords and the pilum were hidden by Judean rebels who had seized them from Roman soldiers or from the battlefield. They suggest that the weapons were cached for reuse during the Bar Kochba Revolt (132-135 CE), the second major Jewish uprising against the Roman Empire in Judea. The revolt was led by Simon bar Kokhba, who claimed to be the messiah and established an independent Jewish state. However, the revolt was eventually crushed by Emperor Hadrian, who banned Jews from Jerusalem and renamed Judea as Syria Palaestina.
The evidence for this hypothesis comes from bronze coins from the Bar Kokhba Revolt that were found at the mouth of the cave. The coins bear inscriptions such as “Year one of the redemption of Israel” and “Simon Prince of Israel”. The researchers also noted that 50 years ago, a stalactite with an incomplete ink inscription written in ancient Hebrew script was found in the same cave. They used multispectral photography to decipher parts of the inscription that were not visible to the naked eye, but they could not determine its meaning or date.
“The hiding of the swords and the pilum in deep cracks in the isolated cave north of En 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 Dr. Eitan Klein, one of the directors of the Judean Desert Survey Project.
A mystery yet to be solved
The researchers said that they are just beginning to study the cave and the weapon cache discovered in it. They hope to find out more about who owned the swords, where, when, and by whom they were manufactured, and what historical event led to their concealment.
“We will try to pinpoint the historical event that led to the caching of these weapons in the cave and determine whether it was at the time of [the] Bar Kokhba Revolt in 132–135 CE,” said Dr. Klein.
The discovery of the ancient Roman swords is one of many recent findings made by Israeli archaeologists in the Judean Desert. In March this year, dozens of fragments of biblical scrolls dating back to 2nd century CE were found in another cave near En Gedi. In May this year, a rare gold coin bearing an image of Emperor Nero was unearthed near Jerusalem’s Old City.
The IAA said that these discoveries demonstrate “the great importance” of conducting archaeological surveys and excavations in remote areas before they are damaged by looters or natural disasters.