BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Ancient Roman Swords Discovered Near Ein Gedi

Roman soldier’s weapon kit found in near pristine condition

Ancient Roman Swords

The four ancient Roman swords and the pilum. Courtesy Nathan Steinmeyer, BAS.

Visiting a cave in the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve near the Dead Sea, a group of archaeologists stumbled upon an unexpected and incredible discovery: four Roman swords and a javelin head, nearly perfectly preserved after roughly 1,900 years. While the archaeologists are not yet certain how these rare finds ended up in the desert cave, they suggest they may have been taken as booty by Judean rebels and hidden during the Bar-Kokhba Revolt (c. 132–135 CE).

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The Dead Sea Roman Swords

The cache of weapons included three spatha swords, each measuring about 2 feet long, a 17-inch ring pommel sword, and a pilum (javelin head). All five weapons were common features of a Roman soldier’s kit, but their preservation is practically unmatched, with all the iron swords still including their wooden handles and three still inside their scabbards. However, while the spatha swords were standard-issue and carried by many of the Roman soldiers stationed in Judea, the ring pommel sword is an exceptional find. The ring pommel sword, which originated around the Danube River, is the oldest-known example of this sword style found in the Roman East.

“Finding a single sword is rare—so four? It’s a dream! We rubbed our eyes to believe it,” said the researchers, who included archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and several major Israeli universities. The dry climate of the Judean Desert is well suited for preserving ancient artifacts, a fact which has led to many incredible discoveries over the years, including the famed Dead Sea Scrolls.

The team also discovered leather strips as well as wooden and metal finds that belonged to the swords. Additional excavations in the cave revealed artifacts dating to the Chalcolithic period (c. 4500–3300 BCE) and a bronze coin dating to the Bar-Kokhba Revolt.

cave of the roman swords

Archaeologists working in the cave near Ein Gedi. Courtesy Oriya Amichai, IAA.

“The hiding of the swords and the pilum in deep cracks in the isolated cave north of Ein Gedi hints that the weapons were taken as booty from Roman soldiers or from the battlefield, and purposely hidden by the Judean rebels for reuse,” said Eitan Klein, one of the directors of the IAA’s Judean Desert Survey Project. “We are just beginning the research on the cave and the weapon cache discovered in it, aiming to try to find out who owned the swords, and where, when, and by whom they were manufactured. We will try to pinpoint the historical event that led to the caching of these weapons in the cave and determine whether it was at the time of the Bar-Kokhba Revolt.”

moving the roman swords

Removing the Roman swords from the cave. Courtesy Emil Aladjem, IAA.

Guy Stiebel, a professor at Tel Aviv University who helped study the swords, is more cautious. Speaking to Bible History Daily, he suggests that it is still too early to reach any definitive conclusions on who hid the swords or why. “Once we have carbon-14 dating, the DNA results, and the isotope [analysis], we’ll be able to say more about the history of each sword. It is not one event; the fact that they were found in the cave represents a moment in time, but their history might have been lengthy. We can’t even pinpoint yet [the dating] within the second century, to the beginning or the end.” Despite this caution, he agrees that the most plausible context of the Roman swords being hidden is the Bar-Kokhba Revolt.

 

The Story Behind the Discovery

Roman sword

Archaeologists Oriya Amichay and Hagay Hamer with one of the swords found in the cave. Courtesy Amir Ganor, IAA.

The story of this incredible discovery actually began 50 years ago, when researchers noted a fragmentary Old Hebrew inscription written on one of the cave’s stalactites. The current team was revisiting the cave, which is only accessible by rapelling down a steep cliff face, to photograph the inscription with multispectral photography in hopes of getting a clearer reading.

While carrying out this project, Asaf Gayer of Ariel University spotted the Roman pilum nestled inside a narrow crevice of the cave’s upper level. Looking around, he also came across pieces of worked wood in another nearby crevice, which would prove to be fragments from one of the Roman sword’s scabbards. Upon making the discovery, the team immediately reported their findings to the IAA’s Judean Desert Survey Project, which returned to the cave to carry out a full excavation.

 


All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Roman Cult, Jewish Rebels Share Jerusalem Cave Site

Roman Coins Boast “Judaea Capta”

Recovering Roman Jerusalem—The Entryway Beneath Damascus Gate

Fleeing the Romans

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

 

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