A 5,000-year-old treasure from the Judean desert

A 5,000-year-old treasure from the Judean desert

I visited the Metropolitan Museum last month, and while admiring the Roman and Greek art, I suddenly felt a burst of curiosity, wondering if this museum has anything on display that comes from Israel. I made my way to the Near-East wing on the second floor and roamed through the galleries observing all the beautiful treasures from Persia, Assyria, Syria, and then at the far end of the gallery I noticed a glass case containing three metal objects that were very familiar to me. I knew then immediately that the Met owns a few artifacts from Nahal Mishmar, from the Judean desert in Israel.

One would think, that out of all Israel’s history and contribution to the world, the Met would display something to do with Jesus, or some biblical artifact, or maybe one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but no, the artifacts on display are from the prehistoric era, or rather the transition from pre-history to history. This period is known as the Calcholithic Era.

The story of the treasure from the cave in Nahal Mishmar starts in the early ’60s. Israel’s Departments of Antiquities decided to implement a thorough survey of all the caves in every deep valley and ravine in the Judean desert. The survey’s purpose was to reveal and save any scrolls or parchments in this area. The Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered a few years earlier, encouraged the local Bedouins to search and dig in every cave for more of these precious and priceless scrolls.

The survey was divided into four major ravines and the top Israeli archaeologists were each appointed to one of the ravines. Archeologist Pesach Bar-Adon was to screen and explore every cave in Nahal Mishmar that is located half way between Ein Gedi and Masada.

In one of the caves, above a sheer drop of 600 feet, accessible only by ropes and ladders, Bar-Adon’s team revealed what is now known as "The treasure of Nahal Mishmar."

Hidden in a natural crevice, covered by a large rock, and wrapped in a straw mat was an extraordinary and unique collection of 44′ copper, stone, and ivory artifacts.

The craftsmanship was perfect, the shapes vivid, and the metal pure and clean. The surprise was even bigger when the find was dated as being from 3500 BCE, of the Chalcolithic era. This wonder has been hidden for 5,500 years, waiting for an Israeli team to discover it.

But the mystery had only begun. The artifacts were not working tools and they did not resemble any type of weapon. They were apparently ritual artifacts used for some ancient method of worship. One of the common themes was the antlered head of the local mountain goat, the ibex — still to be seen until this day roaming this part of the desert.

The scholars were bewildered and had many, many questions: Who created these artifacts? Where did they come from? Who hid them in this remote cave and why? And what happened to these people who never made it back to reclaim their precious treasure?

No one has yet answered all of these questions, but the most common theory is an amazing story on its own:

A few kilometers north of the cave is the well-known oasis of Ein Gedi. A small shrine was excavated there by the archeologist David Usishkin. The shrine dates to 3500 BCE , the exact period of the treasure. The small temple, known as the Ein Gedi Chalcolithic temple, consists of a compound with two small rooms. One could have been for storage or the priests’ dwellings and the other appears to be the room for worship. But the biggest surprise is that both rooms were found empty! It seems that the people of the place were afraid of something, and they cleaned and cleared everything and left in a hurry.

This led Usishkin to the theory that has not yet been proven nor contradicted — the artifacts that were used to worship the gods of the inhabitants of Ein Gedi some 5,500 years ago were carried out of the temple in a hurry and stashed in the cave in Nahal Mishmar.

You are all welcome to visit the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and admire these magnificent objects, and if Jerusalem is too far then please visit the Metropolitan Museum, and in the Near East art wing you will find a few objects on display that send regards from the land of Israel 5,500 years ago.

David Hyman is shaliach and Israel Program Center director for UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.

read more: