Friday, June 03, 2016

The Cave of Skulls excavation concludes

EXPEDITION WRAP-UP: In Bar Kochba rebels’ caves, salvaging what the thieves left behind. Archaeologists conclude 3-week excavation of the Judean Desert’s Cave of the Skulls, the largest undertaking of its kind in 60 years (Ilan Ben Zion, Times of Israel).
Sixty years after initial scientific surveys of the caves in the Judean Desert, the Israel Antiquities Authority on Thursday wrapped up three weeks of excavations at one of the largest caverns in the limestone cliffs of Nahal Tze’elim. It’s the biggest undertaking of its kind in the arid region south of Jerusalem since the 1960s.
The result:
After the bust, the IAA decided to go on the offensive but lying in wait to catch thieves red-handed in a landscape like the Judean Desert is a game of whack-a-mole. The excavation in the Cave of the Skulls aims not only to glean what valuable scientific information remains, but also salvage any artifacts — scrolls included — that may still be inside.

Amir Ganor, head of the IAA’s antiquities theft prevention unit and one of the leaders of the dig, hailed the excavation as “very successful,” saying the dig already turned up tiny scraps of papyrus. It wasn’t clear just yet whether they bore inscriptions, however, he noted Wednesday.

“Among the things connected to day-to-day life were pottery fragments and a few stone tools, [but] mostly the objects that characterize the Judean Desert caves — where, because of the dry conditions, organic materials are preserved — textiles, cords, fabrics, braids, leather and wood items,” he said over the bustle of activity. Also on that list were spindle whorls for weaving, awls, and scraps of leather and papyrus, and a wooden comb (“what’s more intimate than that?” Davidovich said). The vast majority of the finds were animal bones, some the remnants of the Judeans’ dinner, others brought in by hyenas or other wild animals over the centuries. A few human bones were unearthed as well.
As the article notes, archaeology is really about the cumulative collection and ever-more-sophisiticated analysis of remains from the past. Spectacular discovers are nice to have occasionally, but they are only a small part of the big picture.

Finally, there's this bit of good news:
Ganor, the IAA official, said that his organization tentatively approved funding for an additional season of excavations in Nahal Tze’elim, but that plans had yet to be drawn up.
The investment needed to explore the Judean Desert caves thoroughly would be trivial by the standards of most government projects, and the payoff could be quite significant. Such exploration would add a great deal to our cumulative knowledge, and I would not be surprised if there turned out to be a spectacular find or two still to be uncovered. Probably not another gigantic scrolls library like the Dead Sea Scrolls, but perhaps individual scrolls and even small archives like those already recovered in caves from the Bar Kokhba-era.

Background here and links.