Relations between the Jews and their Roman overlords had always been uneasy. A failed revolt in 66-70 CE, resulting in the destruction of the holy city of Jerusalem and its temple did not extinguish the hope of an independent Jewish state. So when the Romans began construction of a new city, Aelia Capitolina, over the ruins of Jerusalem in 130 CE, along with a temple to Jupiter on the Temple Mount, tensions erupted in another revolt by the great-grandchildren of those who had defied the Roman legions three generations earlier.
Led by self-proclaimed messiah, Simon Bar Kokhba, the rebel forces initially swept the oppressor from their boundaries inflicting heavy casualties and establishing an independent beachhead covering much of what is now the state of Israel.
But it didn’t last. In 134 CE Emperor Hadrian sent six full legions and another six auxiliaries that crushed the rebellion, following it up with a wholesale slaughter of Jewish communities, described by some scholars as a genocide.
Nearly two millennia later, in a remote desert cave 100 miles from Jerusalem, three researchers—an archaeologist, a geologist and a multi-spectral photographer—unearthed evidence of the high water mark of Jewish resistance: the iron head of a Roman javelin.
Alerting the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA)—the group responsible for searching Judean desert caves for ancient artifacts—the team soon found four 1,900-year-old Roman swords, intact, down to the wood and leather accessories, preserved in the dry heat of the desert.
To call the discovery of four Roman swords, three of them still in their wooden scabbards—likely seized as plunder by the rebels—a major find, is an understatement. “Finding a single sword is rare — so four? It’s a dream! We rubbed our eyes in disbelief,” the researchers wrote.
Eitan Klein, who codirected the IAA’s excavation of the cave after the javelin head was discovered, said the swords “are maybe the best preserved” Roman swords ever discovered anywhere in the world. “Usually, you find only the blade without the handle. Here you have the entire sword, with equipment.”
Researchers concluded that based on the swords’ design they had been manufactured by Roman armorers contemporaneous with the Bar Kokhba rebellion. A coin from the same era discovered with the swords served to further confirm the fact.
“We believe that the people who hid the swords in the cave were not Roman soldiers,” Klein said. “It is very difficult to access the cave, so the strong probability is that they were hidden by the Jewish rebels who fought against the Romans. We already knew that caves in very close proximity to this cave were used during the Bar Kokhba revolt.”
Next comes Carbon-14 testing on the swords to determine the exact age, type and source of the metal, wood and leather, plus DNA testing to produce information about those who handled the weapons, as well as those who might possibly have been felled by them.
“We should know more, perhaps in the coming days and weeks,” Klein said.
The Bar Kokhba revolt and its blood-drenched consequences have resounded through the centuries with its charismatic leader as often mythologized as a hero of independence as he is condemned as a false messiah. Though the jury is still out on the person of Bar Kokhba, the caves of the Judean desert continue to yield their secrets, painting a picture of an uprising against the most powerful force on Earth that for a brief season, achieved its improbable goal.
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