Ancient Refuge in the Holy Land
Israel's remote Cave of Letters holds clues to a Jewish uprising against the Romans. Airing November 23, 2004 at 9 pm on PBS Aired November 23, 2004 on PBS
Follow an expedition to a remote cave in the Judean desert, first excavated by the famed Israeli archeologist Yigael Yadin in 1960-61. Yadin uncovered a cache of ancient documents, human skulls, and artifacts that shed light on a legendary revolt by Jews against the Roman Empire in the year 132. The uprising, led by Jewish patriot Shimon Bar-Kokhba, is said to have resulted in the Roman slaughter of 580,000 Jews. NOVA explores the last refuge of one group of Bar-Kokhba's followers with an historian whose bold theories have rocked the world of biblical archeology.
Ancient Refuge in the Holy Land
PBS Airdate: November 23, 2004
NARRATOR: The great Judean Desert: south of Jerusalem and west of the Dead Sea; the land of the ancient prophets of the Hebrew Bible; the land of King David and King Solomon; the land of Jesus and the early Christians. Here, high above a deep, forbidding canyon, is a mysterious cave known as the "Cave of Letters."
Historians believe that 2,000 years ago, this desolate cave was used as a hideaway by Jewish refugees escaping the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. But what actually happened here? What desperation could have driven people to this nearly inaccessible place? What can the ancient letters and objects found here tell us about their plight?
RICHARD FREUND (University of Hartford): Are there anymore backpacks over here?
NARRATOR: Richard Freund, a professor of Jewish history, is mounting a new expedition to the Cave of Letters, determined to unravel its deep secrets.
RICHARD FREUND: Head 'em up, move 'em out.
So you have Roman source, you have Christian source, you Jewish source, they all say the same thing.
NARRATOR: Freund's busload of archaeologists and historians is in for an arduous journey, a journey that will force them to confront long-held beliefs about Biblical history.
RICHARD FREUND: Okay, go get a helmet. Make sure you pick out one that works for you.
NARRATOR: The trek begins on top of the cliff, then down a steep path to the level of the cave. It continues across a sheer cliff-face on a series of narrow ledges, and finally up to the cave itself. The path wanders precariously, 650 feet above the canyon floor.
Lawrence Schiffman, a world renowned scholar of the Dead Sea Scrolls, is determined to complete the climb, although he's admittedly a man more at home in a library than on a cliff-side.
LAWRENCE SCHIFFMAN (New York University): There's no question; it's not an easy thing for me to be here. You're holding on for dear life, and then when you finally get to the ledges, and you climb sideways along these very, very dangerous ledges where you have a 600-foot drop below you, you're just hoping, "Okay, let's get this over with."
NARRATOR: One last challenge: a 50-foot climb up to the cave's entrance. Soon the real quest can begin. Schiffman, Freund and their colleagues will be able to explore a place that's intrigued historians and biblical scholars for decades, a place that may reveal secrets that have been held for thousands of years. Ancient Refuge in the Holy Land, right now on NOVA.
NARRATOR: The vast desert of southern Israel is one of the harshest wastelands in the world. For thousands of years, this arid land has witnessed epic struggles, warrior heroes, religious visionaries, and tragic victims of persecution.
The history of the region is told in the hundreds of caves scattered west of the Dead Sea. The famous Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves like these—sacred texts written in antiquity and hidden away for safekeeping.
Israel, then called Judea, was part of the vast Roman Empire, but the Jewish nation lived uncomfortably with its pagan rulers. The Emperor expected his subject-nations to embrace the culture of Rome with its multiple, human-like gods. But the Jews worshipped only at their temple, the center of their belief in one, unseeable God.
When the Emperor defiled the temple, Jewish zealots rose up in bloody rebellion. Rome prevailed, killing hundreds of thousands of Jews.
These timeless caves witnessed it all and may hold secret treasures deep within, treasures that offer a window into those turbulent times of messianic fervor, oppression and revolt.
Just to stand on this soil is an emotional experience for Richard Freund. He's an American rabbi as well as an historian and has been determined to explore the Cave of Letters for years.
RICHARD FREUND: This was the biggest opportunity, I think, that has been presented to an archeological team over the past half century: to go to probably the most productive, most fruitful cave that's ever been discovered on the Dead Sea, the Cave of Letters.
NARRATOR: It was an Israeli expedition in 1960 that made the Cave of Letters famous. The expedition was led by one of the founding fathers of the young state of Israel, a military general, statesman and archaeologist named Yigael Yadin. Along with dozens of archeologists and hundreds of volunteers, Yadin launched an urgent search of the Dead Sea caves to rescue artifacts of historical importance before Israel's rich ancient heritage was looted by treasure hunters.
In many of the caves, Yadin discovered little of interest, but there was still a large cave left to explore high up in the cliff-side above a canyon called Nahal Hever.
After a perilous climb, Yadin and his team found themselves in a vast foreboding cavern. Soon, they struck pay dirt: human skulls and bones, and troves of ancient artifacts—from the common objects of daily life to a dazzling cache of bronze ritual items—evidence that people must have lived and died here, in this virtually inaccessible place where temperatures often top 115 degrees and the nearest source of water is far across the canyon.
Why did people come here? Who were they? The mystery began to unravel with another amazing discovery. Hidden under a rock in the deep recesses of the cave was a find that took Yadin's breath away, a cache of ancient letters that gave the Cave of Letters its name.
The crumbling documents were military orders signed by a legendary leader of the Jews known as Shimon Bar Kokhba, Simon, son of a star.
SHIMON BAR KOKHBA (Ancient Jewish Leader, Dramatization): From Shimon Bar Kokhba to Yehonatan: get a hold of the young men and come with them, and I shall deal with the Romans.
NARRATOR: Bar Kokhba led a heroic rebellion against the Romans about nineteen hundred years ago. Over the centuries, he has been lionized in Jewish stories and poems as the last ruler of a free Jewish nation. Some even considered him the Messiah, born of a star to free his people from Roman oppression, but no historical evidence of his life had ever been found before.
With the discovery of the letters, the skulls and household objects took on new meaning. Yadin believed they belonged to Jewish rebels who fled the Romans during the Bar Kokhba rebellion.
But is this the only story the Cave of Letters tells? Richard Freund is not convinced.
RICHARD FREUND: The lingering mystery is what else is in the cave, because one thing's for sure: unlike Yadin in 1961, I'm absolutely convinced there are tremendous other finds to be found in this cave.
NARRATOR: The Cave of Letters is massive, with two openings in the sheer cliff wall. Inside there are three chambers connected by narrow passageways. Overall, the cavern complex cuts more than 300 yards deep into the cliff-side.
RICHARD FREUND: So, what we're going to do is we're going to concentrate on a few different areas where Yadin was unable to excavate and see, using our technology, if we can excavate there. And then we're going to check all of the things that Yadin says that he fully excavated just to see if he did his work quite as thoroughly as he thought he did.
NARRATOR: In the early 1960s, Yadin's team scoured the cave perimeter but was unable to search beneath the layer of rubble up to 15 feet deep that litters the cave floor, rocks and boulders knocked loose from the roof by earthquakes over the centuries. But Freund's team has ways of seeing beneath the rubble. Ground-penetrating radar, GPR, can locate underground features using radio waves.
HARRY JOL (University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire): The two antennae are sending...one is sending down a signal and one is picking up the signal that's reflected off the layers beneath the surface. And what we're doing is getting an image of that sub-surface stratigraphy, or layers, where the people might have lived that were in the cave.
NARRATOR: The radar pinpoints the most likely spots to dig for artifacts.
HARRY JOL: That'd be...something would be sticking out the surface of the floor, such as pottery or something, and a rock that might bearing something as well.
NARRATOR: Identifying likely places to dig is one thing, but actually seeing under the ground requires another new tool, a device Richard Freund chanced upon back in the U.S.
RICHARD FREUND: It was during a physical for my own personal health that I was introduced to a new technology, an endoscope, a colonoscope, where they probe the insides of your body. And I asked the, the doctor at the time, "Is it possible to use this, I don't know, to search underneath rocks?" And he looked at me, and he said, "I guess so."
NARRATOR: Freund invited Gordon Moshman, a physician who uses endoscopes to come and operate it inside the cave.
GORDON MOSHMAN (Physician): We have to locate this stuff among all of the debris of rocks and dirt and bat guano and things.
NARRATOR: A lot is riding on this device, a tiny camera lens at the end of a long, flexible, optic fiber. Instead of the human body, he's probing history. And it's tedious, dirty work.
The Cave of Letters is nearly as inhospitable now as it was 2,000 years ago.
JACK SHRODER (University of Nebraska at Omaha): This place stinks. It hasn't got any water; it's got salt all over the walls, which dries your skin out and causes, you know, problems that way. It's a bad place to live. It's the only...only a place you'd like to live if you were running from the Romans or somebody else that was out to get you.
NARRATOR: New evidence that people once lived in this wretched place is turning up daily.
MAN 1: It's a piece of papyrus, not marked. It's like the corner of a page, I think. You can see the square bottom.
MAN 2: Yep. We've got a rope sticking out of the ground here. I think it's attached to something.
MAN: I think it runs toward the hole.
MAN: Why don't you do that? I've got fabric over here like crazy.
CARL SAVAGE (Drew University): We are sitting here in the A-B passageway, which is the crawlway we go through every day as we enter the cave, go back to B and C halls where we're doing all the work. And what happens is, as you walk through, you're brushing the dirt down all the time, and someone found this comb halfway under this rock.
NARRATOR: A simple wooden comb yields an important insight.
CARL SAVAGE: Here, again, it's evidence of people who were living here; they didn't just hide out here. They were here for a longer time, obviously, if you're going to keep your appearance up while you're in here, unlike us.
RICHARD FREUND: Oh, look at that. It's a child's left sandal. And it's very rare to find the children's wear because unfortunately the children didn't always live to be older. So when you find something like this, you wonder what the, the life of this child was.
NARRATOR: Why would anyone have brought children here? How long would they have been forced to live in such miserable conditions?
Freund's team has now been working for five days. Tomorrow they'll be joined by an Israeli colleague who may help fill in the picture of those who once made this cave their refuge.
Hannah Cotton is an authority on ancient languages. She's spent years studying the papers and personal items found by Yadin. She jumped at the chance to explore the cave firsthand, despite the difficult climb.
HANNAH COTTON (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem): Wonderful, huh? My goodness, I never thought I'd make it here. I can't understand how women and children could make it up here.
NARRATOR: The life of one ancient woman in particular captivates Hannah Cotton. Her name was Babatha. A widow and mother in her thirties when the rebellion began, she was related to Yehonatan, the military commander mentioned in Bar Kokhba's documents. It seems she fled with him to the Cave of Letters.
Babatha was an ordinary woman of her time, but we know her life in extraordinary detail, thanks to a cache of 35 personal papers she left hidden in this cave.
HANNAH COTTON: So here is where they found the famous Babatha archive, that Jewish woman who ended up her life here in this cave. And her purse was found here by Yadin.
NARRATOR: Babatha's purse contained documents written in Aramaic and Greek, the official languages of the day, wedding contracts, property deeds, bills of sale and more. Because women had only limited rights under either Jewish or Roman law, Babatha guarded her documents carefully.
HANNAH COTTON: The first time we hear about her is when she got married for the first time. The husband died, and she was left with an orphan who was a minor. They appointed two guardians. And then she started a series of litigations with these guardians that she thought were both incompetent, and I think she also thinks that they were cheats.
NARRATOR: Babatha probably lived a comfortable life before the Bar Kokhba uprising. Her papers show that she owned a date orchard in the prosperous town of En Geddi on the Western shore of the Dead Sea.
RICHARD FREUND: En Geddi was a beautiful oasis in the desert. It had water. It had date palm trees. Later it had a beautiful synagogue. This was a place where people would have lived an upper middle class life, and for them to trek out into the desert and to come to this cave must have been a tremendous shock.
NARRATOR: The Cave of Letters was so desolate and inaccessible, Babatha and the others must have felt confident they could stay here, undetected, for as long as necessary, then return home with their possessions once the Romans were defeated by Bar Kokhba's rebels.
But what triggered the rebellion? Scholars point to one primary cause: a burning desire among some ardent Jews to reclaim Jerusalem from the Romans and rebuild their holy temple. For centuries, the temple had been the center of Jewish worship. It had been for Jews what Mecca is to Islam, or the Vatican to Catholics.
LAWRENCE SCHIFFMAN: According to the book of Deuteronomy, there was to be built "a special place of worship which was the place that the Lord shall choose." And this was understood to be Jerusalem by the Jewish people.
NARRATOR: About 20 years before the birth of Jesus, Herod, the King of the Jews, appointed by Rome, began expanding the 500-year-old temple on Jerusalem's Temple Mount.
He turned the temple into a monumental structure, using elements of Greek and Roman architecture, making it one of the wonders of the first century world. Here Jewish priests worshipped God as they had for centuries, offering animal sacrifices on the temple's great altar, amidst thick plumes of incense.
RICHARD FREUND: This is the temple that Jesus would have visited, the same temple that all those people who were making pilgrimage would have visited three times a year.
NARRATOR: But Rome came to see the temple as a threat to its sovereignty, the center of growing Jewish nationalism. The emperor imposed oppressive restrictions on its use, and Roman soldiers breached the sanctuary, defiling it in Jewish eyes.
Then, in the year 66, the Jews rebelled, vowing to kick out the pagans and free themselves from Roman rule. But after four years of bitter fighting, the mighty Roman army prevailed, leveling much of Jerusalem and destroying the temple.
LAWRENCE SCHIFFMAN: There was enormous killing in the streets of Jerusalem, and then the wooden parts of the temple were burned. The walls were toppled and the building was totally wrecked. The Romans wanted to obliterate the entire thing because they understood its significance to the Jews, really, as a national center. That's what they were after. They weren't after Judaism; they were after this as a national political center. And they wanted to make sure that the Jews had learned a lesson of revolting, so it was totally destroyed.
NARRATOR: All that remains, today, of the temple complex in Jerusalem, is a part of its massive outer wall now known as the "Western Wall" or the "Wailing Wall." Jews still consider it their holiest place.
Judaism has adapted and survived for 2,000 years without the Great Temple. Local synagogues became the centers of worship, and prayer replaced the ancient practice of animal sacrifice. But for decades after its destruction, Jews feared their religion would die without this central place of worship. Then, in the year 132, a new Emperor struck yet another blow to the heart of the Jewish religion.
LAWRENCE SCHIFFMAN: Hadrian, the Roman emperor, had decreed that this temple mount would become Alia Capitolina—essentially a temple of Jupiter—and that Jews would be forbidden to worship there, turning it, really, into a pagan cult site, which, of course, to the Jews, was the greatest possible disgrace.
NARRATOR: For Bar Kokhba, this was the last straw. He raised a rebel army of skilled Jewish fighters and caught the Roman legions by surprise. For nearly three years, the rebels held the upper hand and re-established Israel as an independent, Jewish nation with Bar Kokhba as its leader.
Freund's team finds direct evidence of Bar Kokhba's early triumphs.
CARL SAVAGE: We found one Bar Kokhba coin in the A-B passage. It's only the eighth coin altogether found in this cave.
NARRATOR: Bar Kokhba made his coins by overstamping the Roman emperor's coinage with temple imagery and the inscription "For the freedom of Jerusalem."
It was a bold act of defiance.
Yadin had found similar coins and declared them proof of Bar Kokhba's heroic status. But new studies of Bar Kokhba's letters paint a different picture.
BARUCH LEVINE (New York University): My first impression, when I started to read the letters of Bar Kokhba, was that he was much less...had much less stature than the legend ever had. And that he was not a nice guy. He's constantly threatening everybody. "I will punish you. I will exact punishment from you." He was barking out orders right and left.
BAR KOKHBA: To Yehonatan: you too will be punished. In comfort you sit, eat and drink from the property of the House of Israel and care nothing for your brothers.
NARRATOR: Bar Kokhba wrote several threatening letters to Yehonatan, the leader from En Geddi whom Babatha and the others followed into the Cave.
Had Yehonatan fallen out of favor? Were the Jews in the cave actually hiding from Bar Kokhba as he became desperate and wrathful, fearing the tide of the war was turning against him?
LAWRENCE SCHIFFMAN: Apparently, there were a lot of Jews who must have been getting arrested by Bar Kokhba and his army at this time. And I think we have to remember as we read these letters that not the entire Jewish people supported the Bar Kokhba revolt. There were many who thought that peace with the Romans would be a better course of action.
NARRATOR: Babatha's documents, for instance, reveal no signs of tension between Jews and their Roman overlords.
HANNAH COTTON: Had I only read these documents, I would have said these are the last people to revolt against the Romans.
BARUCH LEVINE: Jews and others were getting along quite well. They were not ghettoized people, they were people that did business. And there was some sudden shockwave that descended on the area.
NARRATOR: The shockwave might have been Bar Kokhba's rebellion itself. Opinions differ as to how many people joined Bar Kokhba, or how popular he was within Judea, but most historians do agree on one thing: the Roman response was massive and brutal.
RICHARD FREUND: Hadrian called in 12 divisions, from as far away as Britain, in order to put down the rebellion for once and for all. They were going to use this small Jewish nation as an example to the entire empire, and that's what they did. Nearly 600,000 people were killed in the revolt. Over 900 villages were, were destroyed. The scope is so great that it's only eclipsed in our own times with the Holocaust.
NARRATOR: Hadrian's wrath knew no bounds. Jews who survived the slaughter were forbidden to enter their holy city, Jerusalem. He even sought to erase the Jewish people from world memory, changing the name of their country from Judea to Syria Palestina.
Roman legions scoured the countryside for Jewish rebels and their sympathizers, even into the most remote reaches of the desert where Yehonaton, Babatha and others had fled, seeking refuge up in the Cave of Letters.
High above the cave, on the cliff-top, Roman soldiers built small camps which can still be seen today. There they waited for the Jews to emerge.
Clues to the refugees' fate may still be found. One of Freund's slender colleagues squeezes through a narrow passageway to explore a niche where Yadin had seen human bones. Is this what became of the Jewish refugees trapped inside the cave by the Romans camped above?
He brings back a videotape to show the others.
HANAN ESHEL (Bar-Ilan University): Here is a skeleton.
CHRIS: Yeah, part of the pelvis.
NARRATOR: The bones are small, all women and children.
HANAN ESHEL: It's a finger bone.
NARRATOR: Freund's team of experts may now be able to answer an important question that haunted Yadin: what was the exact cause of death for these refugees?
Joe Zias is a specialist in the forensic analysis of ancient skeletons.
JOE ZIAS (Paleopathologist): What's interesting here is that there seemed to be a lot of kids here, between the ages of, I would say, seven to 15, which is unusual. The other thing is no pathology whatsoever, not even one broken bone. You usually see, you know, you're looking at this much material, you're going to see some trauma...nothing.
NARRATOR: The lack of physical trauma suggests that these people did not die violently. It seems they may have slowly starved to death after the Roman legions cut off their supplies.
There's evidence that the refugees were able to hold out in the cave for some time. The team finds signs that they brought goats to eat and birds to lay eggs, and they had made elaborate preparations for cooking.
FRED STRICKERT (Wartburg College): Here's a piece that's kind of interesting. This is piece of oven. They had huge circular ovens and we assume if people were in here for any time, they had to make their own bread, and bread was very important in their diet.
They didn't just come in one day, running away from the Romans, and bring a few pieces of firewood. They were prepared. They came with stacks and stacks of wood, and they were getting ready.
NARRATOR: But how did desperate refugees, chased from their homes by Roman Legions, find the time to gather so many supplies? How did they know where to go?
RICHARD FREUND: How did they know that this cave existed, in 132, to bring all those people from En Geddi out here, unless they knew it from before? So it's clear to me this was a well-known cave, a cave that had been used before and people talked about in closed circles. This was the place to go to in case of a refuge.
NARRATOR: Richard Freund has a radical theory: long before the Bar Kokhba rebellion, Jews would also have been in need of a refuge, when the Romans crushed the First Jewish Revolt and burned the temple to the ground in the year 70. Freund believes that the Cave of Letters was occupied during that first revolt, decades before Bar Kokhba, a possibility that Yadin's team never really considered.
RICHARD FREUND: When they discovered this cave, they thought that this was going to be one story, the story of the Bar Kokhba Rebellion. And after examining the material, I started to question whether maybe there wasn't another story, the story about, not the second century, but the first century; not the story of the Bar Kokhba Rebellion, but the story of the destruction of the temple and those refugees who came out of Jerusalem.
NARRATOR: Freund is convinced that there must be a lower layer in the cave, dating back to the temple era. He turns to another new technology that might confirm this, Electrical Resistivity Tomography.
This device can identify underground features by measuring how well the ground conducts electricity. The solid bedrock on the bottom is the best conductor, and shows up as blue. Above are lines of green, yellow and orange, indicating layers of hard-packed clay that at one time made up the cave floor. These are weaker conductors. Above, displayed in pink, is rubble, the poorest conductor.
When these images are overlaid with ground penetrating radar data, a more detailed picture emerges. The rubble appears to be layered, suggesting it was built up over time when earthquakes rocked the area.
Freund believes the layers represent different periods of occupation. He's convinced that some of Yadin's most spectacular finds came from the lowest layers. In particular, a set of 19 bronze artifacts: shovels for carrying the incense needed for religious ceremonies; wine decanters; and a patera, a ritual libation dish, decorated with figures from Roman mythology.
PINHAS PORAT (1960 Excavation Team Member): Wow it's been more than 40 years since I've been here... It's something.
NARRATOR: One of the original members of Yadin's 1960 expedition, Pinhas Porat, remembers vividly how the bronzes were found.
PINHAS PORAT: The metal detector gave the signal that there was a large amount of metal. It gave a very strong signal.
NARRATOR: When Porat and his colleagues began to dig, they made an unpleasant discovery.
PINHAS PORAT: It was a toilet. It was...this was where their toilets were. And what we were finding was the dried up remnants of people going to the toilet.
We didn't know why a metal detector would be going off in the toilet. And we dug and dug and dug and dug, and we were just about ready to give up, and suddenly we found a piece of rope. And we followed the rope down. We kept uncovering the area. And the rope was attached to the handles of a closed basket, and of course it was full of the bronze vessels that are on exhibition in Jerusalem today.
NARRATOR: All the other finds in the Cave of Letters were of Jewish origin, but Yadin believed these bronzes were pagan ritual items, Roman, that had been stolen by the Bar Kokhba rebels. But Richard Freund disagrees.
RICHARD FREUND: The most beautiful bronze artifacts ever found together in any location, and the fact that it was buried inside of a cave in the Judean Desert, leads me to believe that there's something more going on here. Why were they buried? I mean here was a person, Bar Kokhba, who needed bronze for weapons, for coinage, for everyday life, and here...if they were pagan objects, would he have buried them? He would have melted them down!
NARRATOR: As the dig winds down, the team makes one last search with a metal detector: another coin, but this one is different.
RICHARD FREUND: This is a First Revolt coin that was minted in 68, before the destruction of Jerusalem. This is the first clear piece of evidence that we have, of some type of first century appearance here in the cave. It's the most important find that we found so far. This is the smoking gun.
NARRATOR: This coin convinces Freund that the cave was indeed occupied in the year 70, following the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. And that the 19 bronzes are not Roman at all. He believes they are Jewish ritual objects rescued from the temple just before it was destroyed and hidden away in the Cave of Letters.
RICHARD FREUND: No artifacts from that temple in Jerusalem have ever been found, and to be able to rediscover those artifacts that were used in that service would be a remarkable event.
NARRATOR: It's long been believed that everything from the great temple was destroyed or carted away by Roman soldiers as depicted on the arch of Titus, the triumphant structure erected by the Emperor to celebrate Rome's victory over the Jews. But some scholars believe that Jewish priests were able to hide precious ritual objects before the catastrophe. They point to a cryptic first century text known as the "Copper Scroll" to support their theory. It's the most unusual and puzzling of all the Dead Sea Scrolls.
RICHARD FREUND: Out of the over 800 manuscripts that were discovered on the Dead Sea in the 11 caves, only one is unique. All the rest are on papyrus and parchment. This one scroll is on copper. And it's a list. It's not a theological text, it's not the Bible, it's a list of the 64 locations where the artifacts from the temple in Jerusalem were buried. And it's probably the most unique, the most important, and the least understood.
AL WOLTERS (Redeemer University College): If we want to imagine how the Copper Scroll came into being, the thing that we should think of is probably a high ranking priest sitting there thinking, "How can I prevent this treasure from falling into the hands of the Romans?" And then devising the plan to find various kinds of hiding places in the outskirts of Jerusalem and the Judean Desert and squirreling away these treasures.
What he would have done after he had identified the hiding places is, personally, to put on a piece of parchment the list of 64 hiding places and what is hidden there. Then he would have hired a metal worker and asked him to copy it on a sheet of copper.
NARRATOR: This scroll of copper was hidden in a cave like this near the Dead Sea village of Qumran, where it lay undiscovered for nearly 2000 years. The copper was coated with clay and could not be unrolled. Only by carefully slicing the scroll into thin strips could the ancient writing be deciphered.
Item number 25 particularly intrigued Richard Freund. It read, "In the Cave of the Column of two openings, facing east, at the northern opening is buried, at three cubits, a ritual limestone vessel. In it is one scroll; underneath is treasure."
RICHARD FREUND: The Cave of Letters may be one of those 64 locations mentioned in the Copper Scroll. It says in a double entranced cave which is called the Cave of the Column—this is a double-entrance cave and from the outside that looks like it's a column. On the northern entrance—this is the northern entrance—three cubits down, you're going to find these metal objects. In addition, it says that above them, you're going to find a limestone vessel and next to that you're going to find a scroll.
NARRATOR: Yadin's expedition had found the bronze artifacts near this northern entrance. Now Freund wants to measure how deep the bronzes were buried. Is it the same depth as described in the Copper Scroll?
RICHARD FREUND: If I'm right, and these, these are the bronze artifacts from the Copper Scroll, then they should be approximately four and a half feet down, yeah, a meter and a half. So let's see what the...if it's a meter and a half or not.
RAMI: Hurray! That's exactly what the scroll said.
RICHARD FREUND: No, no. Really was it, was it...no. Was it really a meter, 70?
MAN: Yeah, a meter, 70.
RICHARD FREUND: Well, that's not bad.
NARRATOR: It seems too good to be true: the bronzes were found at nearly the depth described in the Copper Scroll. The text also mentions a stone jar buried by the metal objects. Yadin found two stoneware vessels near the bronze ritual items. He also found a small piece of parchment with a verse from the Bible's Book of Psalms, written in a style of script common to many first century documents:
"Lord , who may dwell in your sanctuary?
Who may live on your holy hill?
He whose walk is blameless."
RICHARD FREUND: That little section from the Psalms scroll, that was found was found right over here?
RICHARD FREUND: Okay. Next to it, over here, was found the stone vessels?
RAMI: Un huh.
RICHARD FREUND: So the question...
RAMI: The bronze was found here.
RICHARD FREUND: The bronze was found here.
That's about as good as it gets on a good day. We have the scroll, we have the limestone vessel, and we have the metal objects all together. So, either this is a tremendous coincidence, or what we've uncovered is one of the items in the Copper Scroll.
NARRATOR: Freund's theory has controversial implications. If he's right, it would mean that some items from the Jew's holy temple were decorated with images from pagan mythology.
The patera found in the cave, for instance, depicts the sea goddess Thetis, mother of Achilles.
AL WOLTERS: Because of the fact that this was pagan imagery, Yadin thought this could not possibly be from the temple in Jerusalem. However, there is some evidence that there was a good deal of cross-pollination between different religions at that time and that imagery which was used in one religion could very well have been used in others as well. So, I don't think the fact that this is a Roman motif on this particular item proves that the item couldn't have been from the temple in Jerusalem.
NARRATOR: In fact, the goddess Thetis appears on the base of the Jewish menorah carved on the Arch of Titus, along with several other Roman mythic icons. Did the Jews appropriate pagan imagery? Certainly some did. King Herod himself modeled many of his buildings after Greco-Roman structures.
RICHARD FREUND: King Herod was not your classic Jewish King David or King Solomon. He was an extremely Romanized Jew who wanted his temple to reflect the values and aesthetics of Roman culture as much as it would reflect some of the culture and art and artifacts and aesthetics of Jewish culture.
NARRATOR: But many of Richard Freund's colleagues think he's gone too far.
LAWRENCE SCHIFFMAN: Even Jews who were loyal Jews may have been a bit loose on some of the decorations that they had, sort of like the Santa Claus on Coca Cola that is served in my synagogue every winter, but this doesn't really mean that anybody was ever religiously attached to that. But I cannot believe that you could have used Roman images on Jewish ritual objects.
NARRATOR: Freund must gather more evidence to support his claim. He thinks he may have found something here in the ancient ruins of a place called Bethsaida.
Bethsaida was best known as the place where Jesus was said to have walked on water and fed the multitudes. It was an important Jewish town on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
RICHARD FREUND: We found this incense shovel in a temple at Bethsaida. And a similar shovel, one that looks like it could be a sister to this, was found in the Cave of Letters in 1960.
NARRATOR: The best way to know if this incense shovel matches the one found by Yadin is to examine them side by side, so Freund heads to Jerusalem.
RICHARD FREUND: Jerusalem has been the center of Jewish civilization for 3,000 years: 26 times destroyed, rebuilt. And here we are, in Jerusalem, doing research on the Cave of Letters and its connection to Jerusalem, and again Jerusalem is in conflict. Things change and things stay exactly the same.
NARRATOR: The 19 bronze items from the Cave of Letters were on display here at the Israel Museum's Shrine of the Book. The curator, Adolpho Roitman, carefully lifts out the incense shovel that was discovered by Yadin, so Freund can compare it to the one from Bethsaida.
RICHARD FREUND: This is the incense shovel of Bethsaida from the first century. It looks exactly like the incense shovel from the Cave of Letters. So I think it's pretty clear that this incense shovel is not from the second century, but from the first century, and from a Jewish site; Bethsaida was a Jewish site. So I think the Jews were using incense shovels like this. What do you think?
ADOLFO ROITMAN (Head of the Shrine of the Book and Curator of the Dead Sea Scrolls): Maybe you are right.
NARRATOR: Some scholars are intrigued by Freund's ideas. But others are not convinced that the Cave of Letters incense shovel came from the temple and not from an ordinary household.
LAWRENCE SCHIFFMAN: The problem is that incense shovels were also used in people's houses to dispel odors. They were used for cleaning clothes, as we actually know from the Dead Sea Scrolls—as a kind of dry cleaning that you could cause your clothing to smell good again after coming out of winter storage or something—and so, the problem is that this is sort of like asking whether a screwdriver used in a synagogue or church would be any different from a screwdriver used outside. And it certainly would not be.
NARRATOR: The dig is done for now. But the debate over what has been learned is just beginning.
HANAN ESHEL: I think there's tens of thousands of this coin.
RICHARD FREUND: No, so my idea is...
NARRATOR: Freund's theory that the cave was used as a refuge after the destruction of the temple in the first century, as well as later during the Bar Kokhba revolt, is based on many small pieces of evidence, and his colleagues aren't buying it.
HANAN ESHEL: You have to prove the point.
RICHARD FREUND: I know, I know, I know.
HANAN ESHEL: It's not that I have the point. If you want to say that in the Cave of Letters there was somebody before 135, you have to find evidence of things that must be before 135.
There's no evidence yet that the cave was used twice. The cave is so remote, to enter it is so difficult, that, in order to convince me that the cave was used twice, you need to have evidence which are significant from the second temple period that will make sense that Jews had fled there twice.
NARRATOR: Convincing evidence could come from the bronzes themselves, if their age can be determined using the latest carbon dating techniques. The metal itself can't be dated, but the rope can.
RICHARD FREUND: What we're trying to do is solve this mystery: whether these bronzes were in fact placed there in the first century or they were placed there in the second century. And this rope is a key to solving that mystery. We can carbon-14 date it, and then we'll know that this rope, together with the bronzes, were placed there in the first century.
ELISABETTA BOARETTO (Weizmann Institute of Science): We are going to take a very small amount of samples, and we are going to burn the sample in order to recover the carbon in the form of CO2.
NARRATOR: The test measures the amount of radioactive carbon present in the sample, an amount that decays steadily over time at a known rate. The technique cannot pinpoint a precise year, but it gives a probable range of dates for the material. The rope comes from sometime between the years 70 and 260—hardly conclusive results. It could be, as Freund believes, from the time of the First Revolt when the temple was destroyed, but it could also be from Bar Kokhba's time.
RICHARD FREUND: Is it the older extreme or the newer extreme?
NARRATOR: Freund is not discouraged. As he presents his findings at a conference at New York University, he has one more card to play, a well-accepted test by an Israeli archeologist to narrow the range.
RICHARD FREUND: It's called Broshi's Law. Magen Broshi came up with a law when they carbon-dated all of the Dead Sea Scrolls but they still had a 200 year gap, and they couldn't figure out. And Broshi's Law was an experiment that they did on letters from the Cave of Letters. Why? Because the Cave of Letters has dated documents.
NARRATOR: Using three letters from Bar Kokhba, archeologist Magen Broshi compared the actual dates appearing on the letters to the results of the carbon-14 analysis. In each case, the actual date of the letters corresponded almost exactly with the older date in the carbon-14 range.
RICHARD FREUND: Broshi's Law is, "You always follow the older extreme." That's what they use in the Dead Sea Scrolls; I didn't make this law up. But I also want to start to show you something very interesting about the carbon-14 dating we did.
HANAN ESHEL: Another thing, Cave of the Column, why do you think it's a column between two entrances?
RICHARD FREUND: It doesn't say a cave of a column between two entrances.
NARRATOR: Freund is still having trouble convincing a majority of his peers, but that's to be expected, especially in Biblical archeology where science meets politics meets religion.
LAWRENCE SCHIFFMAN: I think that we have to realize that the finding of the Copper Scroll, and some other excavations that have gone into the area are part of a very, very long quest by idealists who think, somehow or another, they're going to find the remnants of the ancient temple and that, somehow or another, these remnants will in some way play into the rebuilding. It's not simply an archeological act. There's something redemptive about finding this true thing, almost like a Holy Grail.
RICHARD FREUND: If I do have a theological agenda, it's that sense of discovery, that sense that all that we need to know is not yet known, and that I can play a part in the unraveling of God's destiny for the world. If that is a theological agenda, that's also the same agenda of science.
You're never going to know for 100 percent sure. I may have to leave it for another generation for people to actually test my own theory against that of Yadin and maybe their own.
On NOVA's Web site, explore the Cave of Letters yourself, hear from a man who helped discover the bronze cache, scroll through a 2000-year-old document and more. Find it on PBS.org.
Ancient Refuge in the Holy Land
- Narrated by
- Keith David
- Written by
- Gary Hochman
- Produced by
- Gary Hochman
- Directed by
- Kirk Wolfinger
- Additional Producing
- David Espar
- Additional Directing
- Gary Hochman
- Edited by
- David Espar
- Associate Producer
- Julie Crawford
- Director of Photography
- D.J. Roller
- Philippe Bellaiche
- Additional Camera
- Mike Haynes
- Sound Man
- Tully Chen
- Sound Recordist
- James M. Lenertz
- Additional Sound
- Steve Whitford
- Assistant Camera
- Mark Carroll
- Music by
- Misha Segal
- Sputnik Animation
- Production Manager
- Philip Hammar
- Assistant Editors
- Terry Hatch
- Online Editor and Colorist
- Doug Carlson
- Audio Mix and Sound Editor
- James M. Lenertz
- 1960 Archival Material
- Edgar Hirshbein, Rolf Kneller
- Archival Material
- Israel Antiquities Authority, Jerusalem
Israel Exploration Society
United Studios of Israel, Ltd, Herzliya Studios
Estate of John Allegro
Lyn Goldfarb Productions & Koval Films
Seventh Art Productions
Musée des Augustins
- Chaggai Rosenbluh
- Yshay Dan - Maldan Theater
Community of Susya, Israel
- Rick Harley
Todd Miller - Miller Fabrication
- Scientific Testing
- Weizmann Institute
- Excavation Team
- Rami Arav
Walter "Chip" Bouzard
Mark D. Smith
- Special Thanks
- Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies
University of Hartford
Israel Antiquities Authority, Jerusalem
Shrine of the Book
Israel Nature and Parks Authority
Sensors and Software
Olympus Industrial America, Inc.
Biblical Archeology Review
John and Carol Merrill
Jerry and April Weiner Foundation
For Nebraska Educational Telecommunications
- Production Secretaries
- Pat Richmond
- National Production Executive
- David Feingold
- NOVA Series Graphics
- National Ministry of Design
- NOVA Theme
- Mason Daring
- Post Production Online Editor
- Mark Steele
- Closed Captioning
- The Caption Center
- Jonathan Renes
- Senior Researcher
- Barbara Moran
- Production Coordinator
- Linda Callahan
- Unit Manager
- Lola Norman-Salako
- Gabriel Cohen-Leadholm
- Legal Counsel
- Susan Rosen Shishko
- Post Production Assistant
- Patrick Carey
- Associate Producer, Post Production
- Nathan Gunner
- Post Production Supervisor
- Regina O'Toole
- Post Production Editor
- Rebecca Nieto
- Post Production Manager
- Maureen Barden Lynch
- Supervising Producer
- Stephen Sweigart
- Producer, Special Projects
- Susanne Simpson
- Coordinating Producer
- Laurie Cahalane
- Senior Science Editor
- Evan Hadingham
- Senior Series Producer
- Melanie Wallace
- Managing Director
- Alan Ritsko
- Senior Executive Producer
- Paula S. Apsell
In Memory of Pinhas Porat
A NOVA Production by Nebraska Educational Telecommunications for WGBH/Boston in association with Lark International.
Â© 2004 WGBH Educational Foundation
All rights reserved
The Jerusalem Archaeological Park
The Jerusalem Archaeological Park's Web site offers a wealth of information on ancient Israel. Tour an amazing virtual model of the Second Temple compound, use interactive maps and time lines, and view panoramic computer images of biblical Jerusalem.
The Bar-Kokhba Revolt
Learn about the history of the Bar-Kokhba revolt on the Jewish Virtual Library's Web site. Be sure to browse the site's extensive archive for information on Jewish history, culture, and religion.
Scrolls from the Dead Sea
Visit this Library of Congress Web site to see detailed information on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Browse a virtual exhibit, view digital images of the original documents, and explore their historical importance.
The John P. and Carol Merrill Expedition to the Cave of Letters
The University of Wisconsin hosts an online gallery and map of Richard Freund's 2000 expedition to the Cave of Letters. See additional photographs from the excavation and learn more about the individual members of the dig team.
The Babatha Archive
Read English translations of documents from Babatha's archive.
Secrets of the Cave of Letters: Rediscovering a Dead Sea Mystery
by Richard A. Freund. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2004.
Bar-Kokhba: The Rediscovery of the Legendary Hero of the Second Jewish Revolt Against Rome
by Yigael Yadin. Tel Aviv: Japhet Press, 1971.
The Documents From the Bar-Kokhba Period in the Cave of Letters: Greek Papyri
edited by Naphtali Lewis. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1989.
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