In March 2018, an excavation was undertaken in Cave A4-026, 0.5 km to the west of ‘Enot Qumran (Qumran Springs) in the Judean Desert (License No. 07–03–2017; map ref. 242862/626614), after finds from the Roman period were discovered in a survey at the site by the Judean Desert Survey team. The excavation, on behalf of the Staff Officer for Archaeology and funded by the Heritage Department in the Prime Minister’s Office, was part of the Judean Desert Caves Survey and directed by E. Klein, O. Sion, M. Ulman and H. Cohen, with the assistance of H. Hamer, T. Kantor, M. Tsagay, A. Amihai, R. Ram, A. Cohen, R. Porat, A. Cohen, U. Davidovich and A. Ganor (survey and excavation team), N. Sukenik (organic finds), V. Nosikovsky (metals), A. Karasik (digital drawing of finds), Y. Bukengolts (pottery restoration), Y. Gorin-Rosen (glass) and C. Amit (photography of finds).
The cave (205 m below sea level) is situated in the upper part of the Escarpment Cliff, c. 1 km south of Nahal Qumran and c. 1.3 km southwest of Horbat Qumran (Fig. 1). Access to the cave is difficult, but it can be reached by either rappelling from the top of the cliff above the cave (a height of 25 m) or by free climbing, grasping handholds and rock terraces from the base of the cliff (a height of 10 m). The cave was not previously known, neither by Judean Desert researchers nor by looters.
At the base of the cliff north of this cave, two caves were discovered and studied in the past: Cave 56/XII, c. 70 m away, and Cave FQ37, about 250 m away and at a slightly higher elevation (Fig. 1). Between the caves are rock falls with a network of ibex paths that afforded relatively free movement. Cave FQ37 yielded Early Roman-period finds from the time following 70 CE (de Vaux 1962:12; Patrich 1994), while Cave 56/XII, which was only partially examined, yielded earlier remains (Ibrahim 2002).
The cave of the present excavation is small and natural (total length c. 20 m), with three cavities along a general east–west axis (A, B, C; Fig. 2). It developed in a rock layer saturated with ground water (the phreatic zone)—an eroded and crumbly limestone layer of the Shivta Formation. As a result, the cave bears clear signs of dissolution: rounded and ovoid sections in Cavity A and in the tunnels, two chimneys that do not emerge onto the surface (“blind chimneys”) and a few natural pillars and windows. The mouth of the cave (width 1.6 m, height 0.6 m; Fig. 3) faces east and is c. 10 m above the base of the cliff. It is low and concealed and was blocked at some point by a wall (W1). In front of the cave’s mouth is a natural rock ledge (length c. 7 m, max. width c. 5.5 m), which provides enough space for several people to stand with ease.
The excavation was conducted in all three cavities of the cave and at the entrance, reaching down to the bedrock. A probe was also excavated on the rock ledge at the entrance to the cave (Area D; c. 1.0 × 1.6 m). The excavation findings indicated that human activity in the cave took place mainly in Cavity A and on the rock ledge. The finds retrieved in the survey, which are included in this report along with those discovered in the excavation, attest that the cave served as a refuge in the first third of the second century CE.
The rock ledge and the cave’s mouth.The western part of the rock ledge in front of the entrance to the cave is narrow and serves as an entryway. This area was delimited on the west by a wall (W2) built of medium-sized fieldstones that was preserved in one place to a height of as much as three courses (height c. 0.5 m; Fig. 4). The space between W2 and the cave entrance to its west was filled with a layer of light brown soil containing a large quantity of gravel (L123). It thus seems that W2 was built to delimit a level and convenient space east of the cave opening, perhaps as a lookout to the east. At the entrance to the cave were the meager remains of W1 (length 1.25 m): one course of five medium-sized fieldstones. Immediately to the east of W1 was a heap of fieldstones that had collapsed from the upper courses of the wall, which apparently originally extended the full height of the opening. Wall 1 extended from the southern wall of the cave northward but did not reach the northern wall of the cave, leaving a narrow passage (L118; width 0.6 m). Numerous potsherds were found in this passage, including fragments of a complete jar typical of the period between the two revolts against the Romans (70–135 CE), as well as an iron spearhead from the Roman period (Fig. 5). Extending to the west of W1 was a well-preserved occupation layer (L122; Fig. 6), which continued under the wall and contained remains of a mat of palm leaves, woven in a warp and weft technique (Fig. 7). It is thus obvious that the wall post-dates this occupation level, at least technically.
Cavities A–C.The cave opening leads to an ovoid cavity (A; 3.0 × 4.8 m, max. height 1.4 m; Fig. 8); this was the only cavity which could be occupied with a semblance of comfort. After the removal of the surface layer (L101, L109, L115; thickness c. 0.15 m),which consisted of loose gray soil mixed with hyrax droppings, a layer of friable, find-grained soil was found—the accumulation of an occupation layer (L104, L110, L116)—over Occupation Layer 122. This occupation layer contained potsherds, including the fragments of the complete jar found in Passage 118, the base of a small glass bottle from the first–second centuries CE, an iron Fibula, a bronze coin minted in Antioch during the reign of Emperor Domitian (81–83 CE; IAA 046096), a bronze coin minted in Caesarea during the reign of Emperor Trajan (114–116 CE; IAA 046097) and numerous olive and date pits. In the lower part of this occupation level were the remains of the mat that had been set on Occupation Layer 122 (Fig. 9), apparently in the central part of Cavity A. Olive and date pits were also found in Occupation Layer 122. The eroded bedrock of the cave was found under this level. In the western part of Cavity A is a rock pillar which separates two narrow passages (width 0.5–0.8 m, height c. 0.5 m). These afford passage by crawling to the western part of Cavity B (1.2 × 2.0 m, height 1.6 m), whose level was slightly higher than that of Cavity A. The excavation in Cavity B, which reached down to the bedrock, yielded no finds associated with human activity. In the southwestern part of the cavity is a passage (width 0.85 m) leading via a step to Cavity C, whose level is higher than that of Cavity B. This third cavity has several branching tunnels, levels and niches, but there too, no ancient remains were found.
The finds uncovered in the cave, especially the complete pottery jar, the glass vessel and the two bronze coins, indicate that in all likelihood the cave was used as a refuge during the first third of the second century CE, apparently during the Diaspora Revolt or the Bar Kokhba Revolt. This hypothesis is underscored by the cave’s location at the top of a cliff, which is difficult to access, and its low and concealed opening. The small size of the cave, which could not be inhabited with real comfort, strongly suggest that it was used by a small group of refugees for a rather short period of time, possibly as a lookout point. Nevertheless, the occupants of the cave carried out several, though slight, modifications to ease their stay: they built W2, leveled the space between the wall and the cave’s mouth to create a convenient living surface at the front of the cave, and laid out a mat made of palm leaves in Cavity A, at the mouth of the cave and in the western part of the artificial level at the front of the cave. It is possible that at some stage, perhaps when the Roman army arrived in the area, W1 was built over the occupation layer and parts of the mat, concealing most of the opening and leaving only a narrow passage. The spearhead and the fragments of the jar found in this narrow passage are perhaps evidence of a hasty departure from the cave.
Very few caves containing finds from the period between the revolts against the Romans have been identified in the area south of Nahal Qumran; Cave FQ137, located about 250 m away from the excavated cave (see Fig. 1), is one of these. It was examined by de Vaux, who found remains from the Chalcolithic and Early Roman periods (de Vaux 1962:12). It was then explored by Patrich (1994), who discovered remains from the Early Roman period, some of which post-date the destruction of the Second Temple. The latter include a bronze coin minted in the first or second century CE, as well as a trilobate arrowhead (Patrich 1994:91–93) and a flat bilobate one (Patrich 1994:88), of the type known only from assemblages post-dating the destruction of the Second Temple. This has led R. Porat to propose that Cave FQ137 was used for refuge during the Bar Kokhba Revolt (Porat 2006:71). However, as no coins or written finds from the Bar Kokhba period were discovered in the cave, it may have been used for refuge during the Diaspora Revolt. Only precise dating, perhaps by radiocarbon means, will provide a precise answer.
As caves FQ37 and A4-026 are adjacent to each other, it stands to reason that both were used for refuge at the same time, and that they should be studied as one assemblage representing a single phenomenon. Nonetheless, Cave A4-026 is unique: its remains belong to a single stratum containing well-preserved remains that were never damaged by looters. Thus, additional studies of the organic, archaeozoological and archaeobotanical finds from the cave might produce interesting results, and radiocarbon dating may assist in identifying the revolt during which this cave was used.
De Vaux R. 1962. Archéologie. In M. Baillet, J.T. Milik and R. de Vaux eds. Les ‘Petites Grottes’ de Qumrân (DJD III). Oxford. Pp. 3–36.
Ibrahim F. 2002. The Excavation of Cave 56/XII. ‘Atiqot 41:215–216 (Hebrew).
Patrich J. 1994. Khirbet Qumran in Light of New Archaeological Explorations in the Qumran Caves. In M.O. Wise, G. Norman, J.J. Collins and D.G. Pardee eds. Methods of Investigation of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Khirbet Qumran Site. New York. Pp. 73–95.
Porat R. 2006. Bar Kokhba Refuge Caves in the Area Between Ein Gedi and Qumran in Light of the Renewed Research Project in the Judean Desert. M.A. thesis, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Jerusalem (Hebrew).