Archaeologists Unearth Four 1,900-Year-Old Roman Swords in Israeli Cave

Jewish rebels may have hidden the weapons away from the Roman army in the second century C.E.

Four swords in a showcase
The four swords in their showcase during an announcement event on September 6 Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP via Getty Images

Archaeologists in Israel have discovered four Roman-era swords in a cave near the Dead Sea. Even at roughly 1,900 years old, the artifacts are “exceptionally well preserved,” according to a statement from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), which announced the find earlier this week.

The swords have wooden and leather hilts, and their steel blades are all between 60 and 65 centimeters (24 and 26 inches) long. The researchers haven’t yet carbon-dated the weapons—or the head of a javelin (known as a pilum) found alongside them—but they think the artifacts came from a Jewish uprising against the Romans in the 130s C.E. They published their preliminary findings in a new book, New Studies in the Archaeology of the Judean Desert: Collected Papers.

“This is a dramatic and exciting discovery, touching on a specific moment in time,” says Eli Escusido, director of the IAA, in a statement. “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.”

Finding the swords
Archaeologists remove the Roman-era swords from the Israeli cave. Emil Aladjem / Israel Antiquities Authority

The items probably weren’t made locally, as Guy Stiebel, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University specializing in Roman military history, tells Ilan Ben Zion of the Associated Press (AP). Instead, they were likely forged in a faraway European province, traveling vast distances alongside their owners.

“Each one of them can tell you an entire story,” Stiebel tells the AP. “They also reflect a much grander narrative of the entire Roman Empire.” The fact that “a small cave in a very remote place on the edge of the empire” can shed light on that narrative “is the greatest joy that the scientist can have,” he adds.

Researchers hypothesize that Jewish rebels seized the swords from the Roman army and hid them in the cave during the Bar Kokhba revolt, a Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire that took place between 132 and 135 C.E. It was ultimately unsuccessful; the Jews suffered heavy losses, and in the revolt’s aftermath, they were subject to severe persecution.

A rare cache of weapons from the Roman period found stashed away in a cave in the Judean Desert

“Obviously, the rebels did not want to be caught by the Roman authorities carrying these weapons,” says Eitan Klein, one of the directors of the Judean Desert Survey Project, in the IAA’s statement. “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.”

The researchers stumbled upon the swords by chance. They had come to the cave to photograph a stalactite with an ink inscription in ancient Hebrew found 50 years ago, according to Jennifer Nalewicki of Live Science. When they unearthed the swords, they couldn’t believe their good fortune.

“Finding a single sword is rare—so four?” say the researchers in the IAA’s statement. “It’s a dream! We rubbed our eyes to believe it.”

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