"From Shimon Bar-Kokhba to Yehonathan . . . get ahold of the young men and come with them. And I shall deal with the Romans." So wrote legendary Jewish patriot Shimon Bar-Kokhba to his supporters during a desperate uprising for religious freedom in the year 132. In this program, NOVA explores the last refuge of one group of Bar-Kokhba's followers with an historian whose bold theories have rocked the world of biblical archeology. The expedition takes NOVA to a remote cave in the Judean desert, first excavated by the famed Israeli archeologist Yigael Yadin in 1960-61. Yadin uncovered a cache of ancient documents, human skulls, and artifacts that shed new light on the Bar-Kokhba revolt, which resulted in the Roman slaughter of 580,000 Jews. Now, Jewish historian Richard Freund of the University of Hartford returns to the cave, certain that the site still holds startling secrets. The place is called the Cave of Letters, after one of Yadin's most notable finds: letters from Bar-Kokhba himself and the haunting personal archive of Babatha, one of several women who lived in the cave along with dozens of children. Yadin also found pottery, coins, cloth, and a dazzling collection of bronze ritual items, which, because of their pagan designs, Yadin believed had been stolen from the Romans.
Convinced that Yadin's excavations were incomplete because of the thick layer of debris five to 15 feet deep on the cave floor, Freund organized an expedition equipped with state-of-the-art technology. This included ground-penetrating radar, electrical resistivity tomography, and a medical imaging endoscope adapted to search beneath boulders. Freund's results have sharpened the picture of life and death in the cave complex, which cuts more than 300 yards deep into a virtually inaccessible cliff west of the Dead Sea. Supplied with a clay oven, extensive provisions, and articles of daily life, the Bar-Kokhba rebels were clearly intending long-term occupation. Human bones found in the cave show no signs of trauma, indicating that the residents probably starved to death.
But the most surprising outcome is Freund's new theory about the bronze ritual items uncovered by Yadin. Based on fresh discoveries and a cryptic inscription from a copper scroll found among the famous Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940s, Freund believes the bronze items are not pagan, as Yadin held, but Jewish. And he speculates that they might be the only surviving artifacts from Judaism's holiest site, the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The Romans destroyed the Temple, the center of Jewish worship, in the year 70, six decades before the Bar-Kokhba uprising. Freund hypothesizes that the cave was used multiple times as a refuge and hiding place. After all, he says, "How did they know that this cave existed in 132 to bring all those people out here unless they knew it from before? It's clear to me this was a well-known cave, a cave that had been used before and [that] people talked about in closed circles."
More controversially, Freund's theory suggests that Jews of the era assimilated decorative aspects of Roman mythology to the point of including mythological figures on their holiest objects. Freund makes a convincing case involving carbon-14 dating, comparison with other artifacts, and the fact that pagan motifs are featured on the Temple's great menorah as depicted on the Arch of Titus in Rome, which commemorates the sack of Jerusalem. Especially persuasive is the copper scroll's description of the site of one hidden cache of Temple objects: "In the Cave of the Column of two openings, facing east, at the northern opening . . . is buried, at three cubits, a ritual limestone vessel. In it is one scroll; underneath is treasure." This description fits very closely with what Freund finds.