NOVA: Ancient Refuge in the Holy Land

A remote cave in the Judean Desert holds clues to a tragic revolt against the Roman Empire – and artifacts link it to a mysterious Dead Sea Scroll...and the Great Temple of Jerusalem.

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.

High above a deep, forbidding Judean Desert canyon, set in the middle of a sheer cliff wall, is a mysterious cave known as “The Cave of Letters.”

Historians believe that 2,000 years ago, this desolate cave was used as a refuge by Jewish people, struggling to preserve their faith and heritage under the often oppressive rule of the Roman Empire.

In 1960, famed Israeli archeologist Yigael Yadin uncovered a cache of ancient letters, human skulls, and bronze ritual objects in the nearly inaccessible Cave of Letters.  His discovery solved a mystery about an epic Jewish revolt against the ancient world’s superpower, the Roman Empire.

Decades later, Jewish historian and archeologist Richard Freund unearthed an exact match to one of the bronze ritual shovels 200 miles away near the Sea of Galilee.  But this one was made nearly a century earlier. 

Freund wondered why bronze incense shovels used in temple worship would be hidden in a refuge cave during a revolt.  He linked Yadin's bronze cache to a cryptic inscription from a Dead Sea Scroll listing desert cave locations where metal ritual objects were hidden from Judaism's holiest shrine, the Great Temple in Jerusalem, following the First Revolt against Rome.

Freund knew he was onto a new mystery.  Convinced that Yadin’s excavation was incomplete because a thick layer of debris littered the cave floor – 5-15 feet deep – Freund organized an expedition equipped with state-of-the-art ground-penetrating radar, electrical resistivity tomography, and a medical imaging endoscope adapted to search beneath boulders.

Freund's team unearthed a treasure trove of ancient artifacts – pottery, oil lamps, a clay oven, fire wood, combs, sandals, baskets, and skeletal remains that sharpened the picture of life and death in the 300-yard deep refuge cave.

The discovery of ritual pottery and a coin from the time of the Great Temple bolstered Freund's controversial theory – plunging him into the contentious arena of Biblical Archeology.  Was the Cave of Letters linked to Jerusalem's Great Temple?

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