It’s not rare in Israel to burrow in the garden, say, to plant flowers, and to find an ancient artifact. One family in the Galilean village of Eilabun found not some measly oil lamp or pagan figurine under their courtyard, but the opening to an elaborate system of underground caves dating to the Roman era, about 2,000 years ago. Earlier this week, authorities made two arrests for illegal excavation of the precious site, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced on Wednesday.
Back in the Roman days, the caves seem to have served for storage and stabling, over centuries.
Which begs the question: The caves are about three meters below the surface, archaeology inspector Nir Distelfeld told Haaretz. So, how did they get horses down there and why would they? Why not build a stable with walls above ground?
“It’s three meters underground today, but 2,000 years ago, when in use, it would have been ground level, maybe half a meter lower but obviously the horse wasn’t lowered down,” Distelfeld explains. “It shows how much dirt and silt accrue over 2,000 years. Otherwise they would indeed have built stables and storage, not cut them into the rock.”
Which is what the ancient Jews of Eilabun did: They carved the caves meticulously out of the chalky, rather soft bedrock. The family, and as of this week the archaeologists, found a large central chamber about four by six meters, and at least two meters in height. Smaller chambers branched off that main one.
The archaeologists believe the caves served for storage and to stable horses, based on various signs, including holes chiseled into the cave walls to which the quadrupeds could have been tied, and a stone trough used for water or feed.
The caves’ dating is based on pottery shards left behind by the thieves who looted the place thoroughly before Israel Antiquities Authority inspectors came along. They not only removed and presumably sold everything else: They shattered the rock, looking for more places to loot.
“The looters weren’t archaeology experts,” says Distelfeld drily. “When they saw a chamber, they started to deepen it, breaking the rock itself, thinking they would find other interesting stuff.”
One thing the thieves left behind, other than fragments of Roman-era ceramic storage jars, is a basalt rock with a groove down the middle, which had been part of a flour-grinding apparatus. “The thieves may have found other things but they won’t tell us,” Distelfeld mourns.
Back when, ancient Eilabun was a Jewish village, says Distelfeld. During the era of the Second Temple (which the Romans destroyed with the rest of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.), there had been “mishmarot kehuna” – the great local families throughout the land would make the trek to Jerusalem, typically once a year, serving the Temple. Eilabun too had a family like that, which would spend two weeks of each year on the Temple Mount. Though a small rural village, much like today, Eilabun also had a synagogue, remains of which have been previously excavated.
Following the caves’ discovery by the IAA, the thieves were apprehended Monday in a joint campaign by the IAA inspectors with police.
There are no active excavations there now. “At the moment we are working on criminal proceedings,” says Distelfeld. “We will look into further excavations there in the future.”