Four stunningly preserved Roman-era swords—preserved for almost 2,000 years in their wood and leather scabbards—have been discovered in a cave near the Dead Sea, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced today.
The ancient weapons were secreted behind a wall of stalactites deep inside the cave in the Judean Desert southeast of Jerusalem sometime in the 2nd or 3rd century A.D., a period when the region was both a battlefield for Roman troops and a refuge for Jewish rebels.
Artifacts made of metal or organic materials like wood and leather rarely survive centuries—much less millennia—of exposure to the elements. But the unique microclimate of what is now known as the Cave of Swords has preserved the iron blades intact with their sheaths, guards, and handles.
“These are among the best—if not the best preserved—Roman swords with scabbards that have ever been found,” says University of Leicester archaeologist Simon James, author of Rome and the Sword: How Warriors and Weapons Shaped Roman History.
Stashed behind stalactites
The discovery was made in June in Israel’s En Gedi Nature Reserve, where caves that pockmark the cliffs along the Jordan Valley have sheltered people for more than 10,000 years.
Researchers from Ariel University and Hebrew University had visited a cave to document an ancient inscription written on a stalactite when they spotted the iron point of a pilum—a Roman javelin—wedged among the rocks, as well as pieces of worked wood. They reported the discovery to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) Judean Desert Survey Project, which returned to the site with a metal detector and eventually located the four swords wedged behind a screen of stalactites in a previously unexplored upper level of the cave.
Since 2017, the survey team, with the assistance of the IAA’s Antiquities Looting Prevention Unit, has conducted a systematic survey of hundreds of caves in the Judean Desert, searching for artifacts before they fall into the hands of looters. Recent discoveries include a 10,000-year-old-basket and the first Dead Sea Scroll fragments found in more than a half-century.
Conflict and chaos
National Geographic captured exclusive images of the swords when they first arrived in Jerusalem at the conservation laboratories of the IAA’s Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein National Campus for the Archaeology of Israel days after their discovery, with photographs that reveal in detail the remarkable preservation of the ancient weapons.
Three of the four iron swords appear to be of a Roman type known as a spatha, a double-edged longsword used by calvary troops and later infantrymen as well. Roughly two feet long, each of these examples features wooden handles and guards, albeit of different styles and varying levels of craftsmanship. Researchers estimate they date at the earliest to the late 1st or 2nd century A.D.
The fourth sword, roughly 18 inches long, features a distinctive metal ring pommel—a design the Roman military widely adopted from foreign fighters later in the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D.
Based on the estimated dates of the swords, they were likely secreted away in the cave in the Judean desert sometime in the 2nd or 3rd centuries, a time when Roman troops were putting a bloody end to a series of Jewish uprisings, and the empire was entering a period of political chaos.
The final Jewish rebellion, the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132 to 136 A.D., is the “immediate suspect” for an event that would prompt such a weapons stash, says Eitan Klein, a director of the IAA’s Judean Desert Survey Project and deputy director of the Antiquities Looting Prevention Unit, who points out that there’s evidence rebels and their families used several caves in the immediate area during that final revolt. A subsequent excavation of the Cave of Swords, directed by Klein, revealed artifacts from the earlier Chalcolithic (4,500 to 3,500 B.C.) period, as well as a bronze coin dating to the period of the Bar Kokhba revolt.
“The scenario we’re thinking about is weapons collected from the battlefield or stolen from Roman units....It could even be that rebels collected the weapons and hid them to be used in the revolt,” Klein notes, adding that the stash could also be the result of later historical events, including battles between claimants to the Roman throne at the end of the 2nd century, and the Crisis of the Third Century, a period of violent instability that saw more than 20 emperors in the 50 years between 235-284.
But archaeologists may never be able to completely explain who stashed the swords away and why in that small cave in the remote Judean desert some 1,900 years ago—rebels fleeing Roman forces? Bandits in their rocky lair? Even a Roman auxiliary going AWOL?
Results from radiocarbon dating of the swords is expected within a few weeks. One thing can be said for certain, Klein notes: “The people that kept these weapons obviously never came back for them.”
Unprecedented discovery, unprecedented opportunity
The remarkable preservation of the swords provides researchers with the unprecedented opportunity to better understand technological capabilities at the time.
For instance, an analysis of the wood and leather can show whether a sword was made locally or abroad, says Naama Sukenik, curator of the IAA conservation laboratory’s organic material collection. Upcoming CT scans and X-rays will reveal interior details of how the swords are constructed, and further analysis can reveal the composition of the iron blades—all of which appear to be in excellent condition according to Helena Kupershmidt, who oversees the lab’s metal conservation unit.
Archaeologists are particularly intrigued by the opportunity to study Roman weapons from the region, says James, who has excavated at the site of Dura Europos in Syria. He notes that most of the better-preserved Roman swords come from sites in western Europe—like Danish bogs and soggy British battlefields. “We really don’t know anything about the manufacturing techniques of swords in the eastern Roman Empire,” James says.
For Israeli researchers, the discovery in the Cave of Swords is just the start of a multi-year study to reveal its mysteries. “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,” says Klein.
Amir Ganor, a director of the Judean Desert Survey Project who also directs the IAA’s Antiquities Looting Prevention Unit, says the discovery is a reminder of what remains at stake at archaeological sites across the region. “The Judean Desert doesn’t cease to surprise us,” he notes. “After six years of surveys and excavations... we still discover new treasures in the caves....I shudder to think how much historical knowledge would have been lost had the looters reached the amazing artifacts in this cave before the archaeologists.”