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Four 1,900-year-old Roman swords found in Judean Desert, likely from Bar Kochba revolt

Archaeologists have discovered four 1,900-year-old Roman swords in a cave in the Judean Desert, which experts believe were captured by the Judean rebels during the Bar Kochba revolt and placed in a narrow crevice in the rock.

“We’re talking about an extremely rare find, the likes of which have never been found in Israel,” Dr. Eitan Klein, one of the directors of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Judean Desert Survey, said in a video accompanying the announcement of the discovery. “Four swords amazingly preserved, including the fine condition of the metal, the handles, and the scabbards.”

The preliminary article on the swords is published in the volume “New Studies in the Archaeology of the Judean Desert: Collected Papers,” which explores new archaeological finds discovered in the Judean Desert Survey Project. A conference launching the book is taking place Wednesday in Jerusalem.

The four swords were discovered shoved into a small fissure in a cave near Ein Gedi National Park, near the Dead Sea. The cave is already well-known to archaeologists, as it contains a stalactite with a fragmentary ink inscription written in ancient Hebrew script characteristic of the First Temple period.

Recently, Dr. Asaf Gayer of Ariel University, geologist Boaz Langford of Hebrew University, and Israel Antiquities Authority photographer Shai Halevi returned to the cave to photograph the stalactite with multispectral photography, which can decipher additional parts of the inscription not visible to the naked eye. While inside the cave, Gayer spotted an extremely well-preserved Roman pilum — a shafted weapon — in a deep, narrow crack in the rock. He also found pieces of carved wood in an adjacent niche that turned out to be parts of the swords’ scabbards.

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The researchers reported the find to the Israel Antiquities Authority and returned to the site with the Judean Desert Archaeological Survey Team, which is conducting a multi-year comprehensive survey of more than 800 caves in the Judean Desert to find and preserve archaeological remains before they are looted.

It was then that they discovered the four swords, three of which were found with the blades still inside their scabbards. Researchers also found ornate handles made of wood and metal with leather strips nearby. The arid climate in the Judean Desert helps preserve fragile artifacts that might otherwise be lost to the ravages of time, including materials such as leather and wood, which are rarely found in wetter parts of the country.

Three of the swords are Roman spatha swords, with blades 60 to 65 centimeters (23.5 to 25.5 inches) long. The fourth weapon, a ring-pommel sword, is shorter, with a 45-centimeter (18-inch) blade. The swords likely belonged to Roman soldiers and were stolen by Judean rebels who hid them in a cave either for later use or to avoid being caught with them.

“The blades have been preserved so well, they look like they could be picked up and used right now, even 2,000 years after they were forged,” said Langford. “You just realize that you are touching history, because here you are touching a find whose story you know.”

The Bar Kochba revolt, from 132 to 135 CE, also called the Second Jewish Revolt, was a Jewish rebellion against Roman rule in Judea led by rebel leader Simon Bar Kochba. Archaeologists believe the swords were likely hidden in the crevices inside the cave sometime during the revolt, as it was dangerous for Jews to be found with Roman weapons.

Archaeologists sift dirt from the cave in the Judean Desert where four Roman swords were discovered, with a view of the Dead Sea. (Matan Toledano/IAA)

“This is a very rare and unique find on an international level that will shed light on the last moments of the war between the Jewish rebels and the Roman army at the time of the Bar Kochba revolt,” said Klein.

‘A unique time capsule’

The cave survey is being undertaken by the IAA in cooperation with the Archaeology Department of the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria, and has been funded in part by the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage. Each body allocated about a third of the project budget.

Archaeologists carefully remove the swords from the entrance of the cave where they were discovered in the Judean desert. (Emil Aladjem/IAA)

Earlier this year, archaeologists carrying out the Judean Desert cave surveys discovered a rare half-shekel coin minted by the Bar Kochba underground economy.

The cave survey started in 2017 and helped archaeologists discover at least 20 new caves they had not previously known. In 2021, archaeologists announced that one of the caves contained previously undiscovered fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, some 60 years after the last pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.

From right to left, Dr. Asaf Gayer, Oriya Amichay, Dr. Eitan Klein, and Amir Ganor, with some of the Roman swords at the IAA office in Jerusalem. (Yoli Schwartz/IAA)

Following the discovery of the swords, archaeologists carried out an extensive excavation of the cave, discovering artifacts from the Chalcolithic period (around 6,000 years ago) and the Roman period (around 2,000 years ago). At the entrance to the cave, researchers found a Bar Kochba bronze coin from the time of the revolt that could help pinpoint the dates when the weapons were hidden.

One of the 1,900-year-old Roman spatha swords which was hidden, likely by Jewish rebels, in a cave in the Judean desert. (Dafna Gazit/IAA)

“This is a dramatic and exciting discovery, touching on a specific moment in time,” said Eli Escusido, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Noting that not all are aware that the dry climatic conditions in the Judean Desert enable the preservation of artifacts that do not survive in other parts of the country, Escusido called the area a “unique time capsule” where it is possible to find “fragments of scrolls, coins from the Jewish Revolt, leather sandals — and now even swords in their scabbards, sharp as if they had only just been hidden away today.”