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Stumbling Upon a Treasure

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In 1960, Pinchas Porat, an enthusiastic young volunteer on his first archeological dig, helped uncover some of the most important relics ever found from the Second Revolt of Jews against the Romans in A.D. 132. Porat, who died in 2002, later became a faculty member in biblical history and archeology at the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies. He also directed several excavations, including the 1994 Bethsaida dig near the Sea of Galilee, considered one of Israel's priceless sites. In this interview, conducted during NOVA's dig at the Cave of Letters some 40 years after his finds there, Porat fondly reminisces about his team's discoveries and explains the importance of the 1960 expedition to its legendary leader, Israeli archeologist Yigael Yadin, and to the people of Israel.

A reason to dig

NOVA: You weren't an archeologist at the time of the 1960 expedition. How did you become involved?

Porat: There had been a lot of talk about the expedition as well as advertisements in the newspapers and on the radio asking for volunteers to help out on an excavation in the Judean desert. A large number of people volunteered and I was among them. It was my first archeological dig, although I'd been interested in archeology since childhood.

NOVA: Why was this dig such a major event at the time?

Porat: The whole legacy of the history of Israel was at stake. Israel had been founded only 12 years earlier, in 1948, but the heritage of its people is ancient. We have very few surviving personal artifacts from Israeli antiquity, and there has always been a drive to find more. Furthermore, the majority of documents, scrolls, or books which Bedouin tribes previously excavated they immediately sold to the Jordanian government, even though it was clear that the Bedouin often conducted searches within Israel's pre-1967 borders. At the time, Jordan owned almost all the important written materials that had been discovered, and Israelis desperately wanted to learn which of these precious documents had been found inside Israel and were thus legitimately theirs.

NOVA: How would the 1960 expedition help Israel make a claim to the Bedouin finds?

Porat: What would happen during these Bedouin missions is that if they found anything with writing on it, which they knew was the most valuable kind of artifact, they would scrutinize it right there. They would handle it, crumple it, look at it upside down—they were quite coarse with it—and little pieces of these documents would break off. What the archeologists on our expedition were hoping for was to sift through the earth and find these little fragments. If they could piece them to the documents that the Bedouin sold to Jordan—even the slightest, smallest fragment—then we would know where those reunited documents came from and to whom they belonged.

NOVA: Why was the Judean desert pinpointed as the destination for the expedition?

Porat: The Israeli government had heard rumors that a group of Bedouin had discovered some scrolls on an earlier expedition to a group of caves in the Judean desert. The Bedouin had not retrieved them; they had only seen them at a distance by lamplight, tucked away in the crevices of some rocks. A Jordanian man who claimed to have witnessed this find approached the government and offered to lead an expedition of Israelis back to the cave where they would apparently be able to find these scrolls. He offered his services for the princely sum of one million dollars. Israeli officials didn't really believe him so they refused his offer, but there was some excitement generated. They decided to organize their own Israeli expedition to four different locations in the Judean desert.

NOVA: Paint a picture of the camp you were assigned to on the dig.

Porat: I was put in the northernmost camp, camp number four, which was Yigael Yadin's camp. Yadin was a trained archeologist, a military leader, a politician, though not a very successful one, and he was a great man. Every night, after everyone had cleaned himself up and eaten dinner, we were invited into Yadin's tent, where he would read to us from his books, lecture us, and teach us. It was quite an experience, especially for me as a young person.

“I figured somebody would come looking for me if I didn’t come out.”

Camp four was chosen for exploration because the areas above and opposite it had been Roman army camps. If the Romans had built siege camps there, across from and overlooking these desert caves, there must have been people—Jews—in those caves whom they were guarding. That was the logic of the dig site.

The unlikeliest places

NOVA: And what were your duties on the mission?

Porat: On the first day of excavations, I was given the task of searching for new, undiscovered caves. I worked with several soldiers from the Israeli army along the western escarpment above the Dead Sea and En-gedi. We found nothing. The second day, I was assigned to the caves. I was told to go along the sides of the caves and check for entrances to unseen chambers. When I crawled into the last room of what became known as the Cave of Letters, Room C, I was working my way slowly along its walls when I found a crack, a crevice in the rock. I decided to go in.

NOVA: This was your first day in the caves. It didn't bother you to just go right into this crevice?

Porat: I figured somebody would come looking for me if I didn't come out. It was very difficult for me to squeeze my way in because I was a little overweight; I always have been. I had to push my way in really forcefully, and I tumbled down into the opening on the other side of the crack. When I sat up and shined my lantern around, I saw baskets filled with objects that looked like round-bottomed jars. I picked one up and when I turned it over—aaaaaaaaah!—it was a skull. It was rather scary to be stuck down there alone and to stumble upon a crevice full of skulls. But I was very excited, almost hysterical. I searched around a little more and discovered fabric mats, other textiles, bones, and many skulls, some with lots of dark red hair on them. Then I crawled out and called everyone over.

NOVA: What did you think you had found?

Porat: Before I realized the objects were skulls I thought I had found a storeroom for jars. Then, of course, I realized that it was a tomb of some sort. At the time I hadn't studied very much yet and I didn't know about the Greco-Roman custom of secondary burial. If I had made the same discovery a few years later, I would have immediately recognized that these 17 people had died and been buried in the ground for a limited time. Their bodies had decomposed in the ground and then later their skeletons were carefully exhumed and their skulls were transferred to the baskets. Their bones were laid out on textile shrouds next to the baskets. Traditionally, a second burial would take place in an ossuary, a limestone burial box. But an ossuary might not have been available to the cave dwellers who lived there, hence the baskets. Or perhaps they had plans to move the remains again when they left the cave. We can't be sure.

NOVA: What was the significance of the find for you and for Yadin?

Porat: The most important aspect of this discovery, especially on the expedition's second day, was to prove that the Bedouin had not completely looted the cave and that there was still a reason to explore it. That was Yadin's goal: to prove that there were items hidden there that had remained undiscovered for almost 2,000 years. We just had to look for them. And that's what made the discovery so energizing.

“We dug and dug more and were ready to give up. Suddenly we found a piece of rope.”

The discovery of the Niche of Skulls also proved that whoever lived in those caves was probably there for a long time—long enough to wait for their dead to decompose before giving them a secondary burial. It added to the story of the people who lived in the caves. It gave us another window into how they lived and how they died there.

NOVA: The Niche of Skulls was not your only big discovery on the dig. What else did you find?

Porat: One day during the second week of excavations, the engineering corps of the army brought a metal detector into the cave. I was assigned with a lady named Ada, an acquaintance of mine, to work with a soldier who knew how to work the metal detector. We went into a huge room where we'd previously found metal coins, and we began to check with the metal detector for more. It immediately gave off a very strong signal. It was telling us that a huge amount of metal was present. We began to dig with small hand tools such as trowels and hammers. We dug and dug. We soon realized that we were digging in a toilet. You can imagine what we were finding in there.

NOVA: It was a toilet?

Porat: It was a toilet! It was an ancient toilet that was now buried beneath lots of earth and stones that were thrown over it during other excavations. What we were finding were dried up remnants of human feces. It was not very pleasant.

NOVA: Why would a metal detector be going off in a toilet?

Porat: That's just what we were wondering. We had no idea why a metal detector would be going off in a toilet, so we decided that the detector must be broken. I'd worked in the Israeli army with metal detectors, so I knew that very often in those days their vacuum tubes often broke and the device would go out of order. The soldier agreed to take the metal detector apart and examine it. He checked it out and said it was working perfectly. "There's metal down there," he said. We dug and dug more and were ready to give up. Suddenly we found a piece of rope. We followed it down and continued uncovering the area. The rope was attached to the handles of a basket. When we took it out and untied the rope we discovered the 19 bronze vessels that are on exhibition in Jerusalem today.

Windows on the past

NOVA: Could Yadin and the other experts immediately identify the bronzes?

Porat: Yadin and the other archeologists there knew immediately that all but one of the bronzes were of Italian manufacture. We could see that there was pagan symbolism engraved on them, but it had been erased. That told us that they had probably been the property of Jews. Jews would buy vessels like those with pagan details on them and then erase them, because pagan symbolism and ideology conflicted with Jewish religious beliefs.

NOVA: Why do you think the vessels were buried there and whom do you think buried them?

Porat: People hiding in the cave left these personal objects there because they probably never got out alive. They either never got the chance to escape and take their belongings with them or possibly they surrendered, were sent into slavery, or were executed and left their possessions behind for safekeeping. We don't know exactly what befell them, but we can compare the Cave of Letters to the other caves where we found no personal items whatsoever left behind, just ancient garbage. Wherever they went, they took all their personal property with them. For the inhabitants of the Cave of Letters, the story ended differently.

NOVA: What about the documents the Yadin expedition turned up in the Cave of Letters?

Porat: They were a tremendous find. The documents literally defined the expedition. They are the reason we call this cave the Cave of Letters. The largest cache was the Babatha archive, which was not a collection of religious documents but a personal archive that imparts a tremendous amount of information on the everyday life of a woman named Babatha, who lived 2,000 years ago. Included among Babatha and her husband's documents were correspondence, birth certificates, wedding contracts, adoption papers, property deeds, and bills of purchase and sale, among other things. These kinds of everyday documents are very rarely discovered. We also found, of course, letters that the Jewish rebel leader Bar-Kokhba himself wrote and signed, an astonishingly valuable cache revealing details of the Second Revolt.

NOVA: Many different excavations have taken place in the Cave of Letters. Has everything been found that there is to find there?

Porat: I doubt that very much. I think there is still something to find, and I think there will be for the ones who come after and the ones who come after that. All of them will have something to find there. These caves are immense and there are many, many passageways. Who knows how many haven't yet even been discovered? So there will always be something to find. You would just need a little bit of luck.

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Pinchas Porat

Pinchas Porat in the Cave of Letters in 2001, near the spot where he discovered the Niche of Skulls 40 years before.

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Map of Israel

The Cave of Letters is perched 600 feet above a canyon on a dangerously narrow ledge. About the approach to the entrance Yigael Yadin wrote: "It was a real test for all of us, even for those who were not prone to fear of heights. I admit that when I got there for the first time, I hesitated, and were it not for the fact that I was in the lead with others behind me, I would not have advanced."

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This intricate patera—a shallow bowl—was among the 19 bronze vessels Porat helped locate in an ancient latrine in 1960. It portrays the Roman goddess Thetis, Achilles' mother.

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Israeli archeologist Yigael Yadin, seen here with a papyrus document from the Cave of Letters, was an inspiration to Pinchas Porat and the others who participated in the 1960-61 dig.

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2001 Expedition

Excavations in the Cave of Letters are ongoing and, as Porat predicted, new treasures continue to emerge. Here, the NOVA team ascends a 50-foot ladder to the cave's mouth in 2001.

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Ancient Refuge in the Holy Land
Babatha's Life and Times

Babatha's Life
and Times

Who was the young Jewish widow who hid her documents in the cave?

Behind the Scenes

Behind the Scenes
NOVA's executive producer Paula Apsell recalls her visit to the cave.

Babatha's Scroll

Babatha's Scroll
Translate a 2,000-year-old cave document from Greek into English.

Stumbing Upon a Treasure

Stumbling Upon
a Treasure

Hear from the man who found the cave's famous basket of bronzes.

Remote Excavation

Remote Excavation
Forget trowels and brushes. Think GIS, satellite imagery, etc.

Interview conducted in the summer of 2001 by Gary Hochman, producer of "Ancient Refuge in the Holy Land," and edited by Lexi Krock, associate editor of NOVA online

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NOVA Home Find out what's coming up on air Listing of previous NOVA Web sites NOVA's history Subscribe to the NOVA bulletin Lesson plans and more for teachers NOVA RSS feeds Tell us what you think Program transcripts Buy NOVA videos or DVDs Watch NOVA programs online Answers to frequently asked questions