Tel Maresha Caves Reveal Lost World of the Idumeans

“Dig for a Day” & Israel Antiquities Authority excavate subterranean metropolis

Beneath Tel Maresha are thousands of manmade caves hewn from the soft chalk of the Judean foothills. These underground complexes supported the everyday needs of a multi-ethnic community of Idumeans, Judeans and Arabs. Photo by Garo Nalbandian.

Tel Maresha, located in the Judean foothills southwest of Jerusalem, exists on two levels—one a typical Hellenistic town; the other a subterranean metropolis of cave complexes. These caves, as described by archaeologist Ian Stern in the September/October 2013 issue of BAR, accommodated many of the everyday building, industrial and even ritual needs of a thriving, multi-ethnic community dominated by the Idumeans, the descendants of the Biblical Edomites.

Mentioned already in the Book of Joshua (15:44), Tel Maresha expanded greatly in the third century B.C.E. and became a well-planned Hellenistic city. The Idumeans and their neighbors outfitted the cave complexes below with a variety of industrial features, including columbaria for raising doves, olive presses for producing oil, and looms and dyeing bins for manufacturing textiles. What is more, the chalk excavated from the Tel Maresha caves supplied a ready source of fresh building material for the city above.
 


 
Learn about fourth-century B.C.E. ostraca from Idumea in “Ancient Aramaic Business Records” in Bible History Daily.
 

 
For reasons that archaeologists still can’t explain, the caves of Tel Maresha were found filled to the brim with earth and debris tossed down from the houses above. Without any complex stratigraphy to record, the excavation of the cave complexes is handled primarily by “Dig for a Day.” Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists supervise volunteers of all ages who come to Tel Maresha to spend a few hours unearthing pottery, bones and figurines left behind by the Idumeans and others.

A young volunteer excavating in the Tel Maresha caves as part of the program called “Dig for a Day.” Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists supervise the work of volunteers.

Among the more interesting finds from the Tel Maresha caves are hundreds of ostraca inscribed in Aramaic, Greek and Hebrew, containing more than 1,300 personal names from the city’s diverse community of Idumeans, Judeans and Arabs. More puzzling are hundreds of vessels deliberately punctured with small holes, a phenomenon that bears striking similarities to a purification ritual described in the Mishnah. The resemblance suggests the purification rites of the Idumeans may have been similar to those of the Judeans.

Interesting features hewn from the cave walls have also been uncovered, including nearly two dozen rock-cut chambers with small baths. Archaeologists believe they may have been used by the Idumeans for ritual bathing, similar to Jewish mikva’ot in Judea. Also found throughout the Maresha caves are non-figurative, stylized depictions of Qos, the god of the Idumeans. Such aniconic depictions may indicate that the Idumeans, like their Judean neighbors, had a strong aversion to figurative idols.

To learn more about the lost world of the Idumeans being uncovered at Tel Maresha, read Ian Stern, A World Below: The Caves of Maresha,” in the September/October 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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The archaeologically rich but unstratified chambers at Maresha provide the perfect setting for untrained archaeologists to uncover the history of a Biblical-era site. Learn about the site’s Dig-for-a-Day program and the fragments of the Heliodorus Stela discovered there in three BAR articles now available to the public for free.
 

 

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