Running Away, But Not Too Far Away

The Dead Sea as a center of refuge was the topic of my oral licensing exam to become a tour guide and continues to fascinate me.  What pressures drive people to seek refuge in this inhabitable landscape?  Men as long ago as the Chalcolithic Period (6000 years ago) fled here and left signs in the desert cliffs above the Dead Sea.  Long before the Dead Sea scrolls were sequestered in caves, Chalcolithic man built temples in the Dead Sea area and suddenly left their habitations and fled into the caves.  Hoardes of copper ritual objects were found in the caves above the Mishmar Stream.  Whatever pushed these early settlers to “head for the hills” was so catastrophic that they did not return to claim their treasures or resume their temple worship.

Uncovering lost treasures has been a driving force for modern exploration in the Dead Sea area.  Unfortunately, not all treasure-hunters are licensed archaeologists but are often Palestinian antiquity thieves.  In a recent sting operation, Israeli police arrested 6 Palestinians on their way out of the Cave of Skulls in the cliffs above Tze’elim Stream.  Habitation in this cliff shows just how far people are willing to go in the name of self-preservation.  Access to this cave is only possible by rappelling down over the cliff edge to the cave entrance.  One wonders how the ancients accessed this cave which is located 80 m (250 ft.) below the cliff top. cave-of-skulls

In order to stay one step ahead of the thieves who will inevitably return to search for scrolls and other items to sell on the black market, last summer a 3-week excavation was undertaken to scientifically study the cave again (a first dig was conducted in the 1960’s).  Among the many bones found in the Cave of Skulls, so named because of the 7 human skeletons buried there during the Bar Cochva revolt, are a few pieces of papyrus.  They have not been fully studied yet to see if perhaps they have writing on them, but this finding leaves the door open for the possibility of finding more scrolls in the Dead Sea area.

There are finds here dating from 139 C.E., several years after the Bar Cochva revolt, and show the presence of Jews in this area even as they had been banned by Hadrian from the area of Jerusalem.  The Jewish connection to Jerusalem is strong and the Jews hiding in the Cave of Skulls over 1850 years ago were not ready to give up on that.  They were willing to live under extreme conditions to keep the dream of return to Jerusalem alive.

Nearby sites

  • Dragot Stream
  • Ein Gedi Chalcolithic Temple
  • Qumran
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