Ancient cookware and other pottery vessels well over 2,000 years old have been salvaged from the unlikeliest of places: a tiny cave on a sheer cliffside, in which nobody could possibly have lived. The pieces had to be lowered more than 30 meters – very gingerly, in padded bags – by rope.
The cave is in Israeli territory but it's right by the Lebanese border, which necessitated cooperation of the Israeli army, the archaeologists note appreciatively.
The cave was found about six months ago by Dr. Yinon Shivtiel, a speleologist from the Safed Academic College. He has been surveying the Galilee for 20 years, seeking and documenting caves where Jewish rebels hid from the infuriated Roman soldiers during the Great Jewish Revolt (66-70 CE).
Clearly if one is hiding from dedicated warriors, it has to be somewhere off the beaten track, which this inaccessible hole certainly is. However, a glance sufficed the archaeologists to realize that this hoard is from an earlier age. Also, the Jewish rebels were hardly the first people to fear for their lives in this region.
With the caveat that archaeological investigation of the remarkable cave and its fragile findings has just begun, and carbon-14 dating will likely happen but hasn't yet – the findings have nothing to do with the Great Revolt, Shivtiel told Haaretz: "At this time I find no place to tie it to any of the rebellions."
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Pottery techniques and fashions change over time: given forms are characteristic of given cultures and times. The shape of the jars and amphorae found in this cliffside hole indicate that the pieces were made, and presumably placed in the cave, centuries before the year 70, when the Romans vanquished the Jews.
Remarkably, the two amphorae were still intact. The archaeologists also found a bowl, other storage jars, two juglets and broken shards.
In any case, when Shivtiel found this cave and realized what lay inside, he didn't touch a thing but called in the Israel Antiquities Authority. They came and the decision to excavate was made.
"As a first impression, the finds seem to date to the Hellenistic period—between the 3rd and 1st centuries B.C.E.," says Dr. Danny Syon of the IAA. "Considering that cooking and serving vessels were found, it would appear that those who brought them planned to live there for a while."
Or not. Shivtiel is confident that nobody lived in that cave, if only because nobody could. For one thing, it was too small, only about 1x2 meters square, he says.
For another, anybody going to the trouble to access it was evidently under terrific stress.
"You can't climb into that cave," he explains. "It's completely impossible. It's 30 meters above the ground and the cliff face up to it is absolutely sheer." Not bad enough? From the top, the cave is under an overhand, the archaeologists explain, and Shivtiel adds: "Only people in dire straits would drop down a rope to that cave."
Which begs the questions of what pottery vessels including large amphorae (jars used to store wine and sometimes olive oil), other pottery vessels, and even a cooking pot were doing there.
"My theory is that these people in stress were hiding in other caves in the area. This one served as a sort of storage cave for food," Shivtiel speculates.
Or maybe an more convenient access had existed once and disappeared over the millennia, Syon suggests.
And who might the terrified cliff-climbers have been? We don't know, at least yet. But the archaeologists suspect they were – like the Jewish rebels fleeing hundreds of years later – in terror of some violent fate.
Generally the Galilee at the time was populated by Phoenicians, and there were some Jews as well, Shivtiel says.
"We have no theory on their identity at this point," he says: research in ancient Greek and Roman sources might reveal information on what people were experiencing trouble in the Galilee back then. Perhaps this odd refuge can be tied to a known historic event.