How Archaeologists and Robbers Unlocked the Mystery of the Maresha Man-made Caves

A stele found by archaeologists meshed with writing found by thieves. The result is a 28-line proclamation that supports a wondrous tale involving robbery, a fearsome horse and a gold-armored rider.

Who made and used the vast complex of man-made chalk caves in Beit Guvrin, known in antiquity as Maresha? Who trashed them? When and why?

Light has finally been shed on this millennia-old mystery following the archaeological discovery of a rare inscription - that precisely meshed with an even more elaborate one removed from the same cave by robbers.

The biblical six-acre “tel” or ancient mound of Maresha, mentioned in the book of Joshua, is the oldest site in the Beit Guvrin National Park.

There are a few relics from the distant era of the Hebrew Bible at Maresha, but the city's heyday came later. By the 3rd to 2nd centuries BCE, Maresha had become a sprawling Hellenistic town with an ethnically mixed population dominated by Idumeans, descendents of the biblical Edomites. The mound still constituted the defensible city center, but many of the townspeople had moved a short distance out of town, constructing their houses out of bricks fashioned from the area’s white chalk, and expanding the city to a very substantial 80 acres.

The soft chalk also made it easy for them to hollow out subterranean facilities - thousands of them. Thus the people of Maresha carved out water cisterns, storerooms, oil presses and dovecotes right below their homes. These can be seen to this very day: Several of the cave networks have been excavated and developed for tourism, thanks in part to amateur diggers. An outfit called the Archaeological Seminars Institute, directed by Dr. Ian Stern, operates a long-running program called “Dig-for-a-Day” (a few hours, really) allowing casual visitors to dirty their hands in a genuine archaeological site, under the guidance of authorized field supervisors. The fee for the program actually underwrites the cost of archaeological exploration.

What makes this informal arrangement possible is the fact that the accumulation of earth and artifacts in this place is “unstratified.” In most archaeological sites, each level of habitation lays over the preceding one. Meticulously exposing stratum after stratum is key to dating each one. But Maresha's underground chambers are filled with what is apparently an ancient rubbish dump, with no sensitive historical sequence to worry about.

Plundering the past

Unfortunately, like many other ancient sites, Maresha has attracted antiquities robbers.

The labyrinths are notoriously difficult to police. Thieves can sneak in through the fields surrounding the park and hide out in the cave complexes.

In 2005, thieves notwithstanding, a group of tourist-diggers came across a broken slab of stone with a 13-line inscription on it in Greek.

It was a spectacular find. The following year, other tour groups digging at Maresha found two more inscribed fragments in the same chamber. An expert determined they were all part of the same original plaque, based in particular on the continuity of text between two of the pieces.

The excavators unearthed nothing more of the plaque. However, someone else already had. The rest had been found in the same cave by robbers and sold to a private collector, who lent it to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

One problem with stolen ancient artifacts is provenance, or archaeological context: where exactly it came from. But in this case, analysis of the writing and stone of the finely-carved, well-preserved stele (a monumental inscription) left little doubt: it was the upper section of the very same inscription that the Archaeological Seminars people had unearthed. The sections were reunited to provide a full 28-line text, which turned out to be a royal proclamation by King Seleucus IV in the early 2nd century BCE.

Hellenistic greed, a treacherous Jewish priest and Hanukkah

After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, his generals fought each other for years for control of the vast Hellenistic empire. In the end, Ptolemy seized Egypt, while his rival Seleucus got Syria.

The strategic Land of Israel that lay between the two kingdoms was a serious bone of contention. The Ptolemies controlled it for a century until their defeat by the Seleucids in 198 BCE at Paneas (today known as Banias), at the foot of Mt. Hermon.

The Seleucid king Antiochus III rewarded the Jews for their support with religious autonomy and other privileges. But his benevolent policy was reversed by his son and successor Seleucus IV, who was being squeezed by the Romans and urgently needed cash.

The 2,200-year old Maresha inscription carries a date, corresponding to 178 BCE. It is a proclamation from King Seleucus IV to his chief minister Heliodorus, telling him (and the public reading the stele) that he had appointed one Olympiodorus to be in charge of all the temples throughout his realm. That apparently included the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.

Temple overseer was a very responsible financial position, since religious shrines generated much taxable income.

The Maresha inscription reinforces a non-biblical Jewish source, the Second Book of Maccabees, which relates the following tale:

A Jewish priest named Simon, embittered by a quarrel with the high priest, falsely informed Seleucus IV “that the treasury in Jerusalem was… full of untold riches” that were his for the taking. The king grew covetous and sent his minister Heliodorus to seize the treasure.

Over the protests of the high priest that the (exaggerated) wealth was “a care fund for widows and orphans” and the private property of worthies who had placed their trust in the inviolability of the Holy Temple, Heliodorus entered the compound. The city was anguished, its citizens beseeching God to protect His house and the precious funds within it from sacrilegious plunderers.

A fearsome horse and a gold-armored rider miraculously appeared and beat the royal emissary senseless. His life was only saved by a sacrifice offered on his behalf by the high priest; but he spread the word of the awesome majesty of the God of the Jews. (2 Maccabees 3).

Seleucus IV was succeeded by his mad brother, Antiochus IV or “Epiphanes,” who outlawed all Jewish religious practice, sacked Jerusalem, and reportedly butchered and enslaved tens of thousands of Jews.

The country seethed, and the volatile situation precipitated the Maccabean Revolt in 167 BCE. The rebels recaptured Jerusalem, purged the Temple of its pagan defilement, and rededicated it to the One God – an event commemorated by the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.

The best guess of some scholars about the ancient trashing of the Maresha caves in the Beit Guvrin National Park is this: The Seleucids had made Maresha a base for their military operations against the Jewish rebels, but the eventual success of the revolt gave its leaders a score to settle with that Hellenistic town. Half a century later, the new Hasmonean kingdom (named for the family of the rebel leaders) gave the citizens of Maresha an ultimatum: convert to Judaism or leave.

They left, bitterly one must assume, but not before making the valuable caverns unusable by trashing them with rubble and household objects.

“These inscriptions add archaeological credibility to an important historical period that is often clouded in myth and legend,” observes Ian Stern, commenting on the historical significance of the Maresha stele, The stele is now proudly displayed in the Archaeology Wing of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

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