Archaeologists announced yesterday that they have found a cave in the Judean Hills leading to the oldest baptismal site discovered to date - a huge water cistern decorated with evocative wall carvings where they believe John the Baptist annointed many disciples.

During a tour of the cave at Kibbutz Tzuba, south of Jerusalem, archaeologists presented the ancient wall decorations, as well as a stone they believe was used for ceremonial foot washing.

They also reported sifting about 250,000 pottery shards from the cave, the apparent remnants of small water jugs used in baptismal ritual. The oldest shards are from the mid-second century B.C.E.

"The site we've uncovered is seemingly the connecting link between Jewish and Christian baptism," said British archaeologist Shimon Gibson, who heads the private Jerusalem Archaeological Field Unit and supervised the dig.

However, others said there was no actual proof that John the Baptist ever set foot in the cave, located about four kilometers from Jerusalem's Ein Kerem neighborhood, birthplace of the preacher and the site where, Christian tradition holds, he baptized Jesus.

"Unfortunately, we didn't find any inscriptions," said James Tabor, a religious studies professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, which helped sponsor the dig.

Both Tabor and Gibson said it was very likely that the Byzantine-era wall carvings, including one showing a man with a staff and wearing animal skin, referred to John the Baptist.

The discovery, if confirmed, would be among the most significant breakthroughs for biblical scholars in memory.

Kibbutz Tzuba members led Gibson to the cave in 1999, and he proceeded to measure it as part of an environmental-archaeological survey he was conducting. To his surprise, he uncovered drawings carved into the walls when he crawled through the small opening and began removing boulders near the wall. The drawings, dated to the fourth or fifth century C.E., display symbols related to John the Baptist, including his image, decapitated head, hand (the only bodily remnant, according to scripture), and a cross shape.

Gibson and his assistant, Rafi Louis, spent three years excavating the cave, which measures 26 meters long and around 4 meters wide, with an average height of 5 meters.

Archaeologists said the cave was carved in the Iron Age, somewhere between 800 and 500 B.C.E., by Israelite monks who apparently used it as an immersion pool.

The most striking discovery dates from the first century C.E.: it indicates "a ritual that differed from the normative Jewish ritual" of the time. Believers would have walked down 28 stone steps, at the bottom of which they would have placed their right foot onto a stone with an imprint of a foot, about shoe size 45. A small depression to the right of the imprint would have contained oil, to be poured over the foot for cleansing, Gibson said.

No less striking was the discovery that the whitewash covering the cave walls and steps dates from the eight-sixth centuries BCE, a finding confirmed in tests by both the Weizmann and Geological Institutes. That means that activity at this site began during the reign of the Judean kings and ended with the destruction of the First Temple.