I was hardly in a position to say no. After all, in 1999 I was a mere graduate student. So when Professor Amihai Mazar, the head of the department of archaeology at the Hebrew University, asked me if I would talk to an American who wanted someone to undertake an excavation, I, of course, said I would be happy to see him. At the time, I was busy in one of the laboratories of the Institute of Archaeology studying a hoard of bronze artifacts that I had recently discovered in Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. Into the laboratory walked this tall man with a determined look in his eyes. Dressed formally, he immediately spread open a map of the Judean Desert. He told me that he knew of a “very important” site in the region and wanted me to excavate it with him.
At this point, he had not yet stated the name of the site. Out came a stream of questionable facts and vague locations, all related to a mysterious site in the Judean Desert. He was hard to take seriously. We are used to the “Jerusalem Syndrome” and its many variations. All kinds of people come to Jerusalem and are suddenly transfixed and transformed, infused with visions and apocalyptic pretensions. This seemed to be one of them. However, I finally agreed to go with him to the Judean Desert to visit 048the site he wanted to excavate. When I said “yes,” he wanted to go immediately, at that very instant. However, because the site was in a military training area where soldiers were using live ammunition, I insisted we wait until Friday morning, when no exercises were to be conducted.
Bob, as everyone calls him, is a pilot for Continental Airlines. He lives in Kearney, Missouri. His full name is Charles Robert Morgan. It turned out that he had been digging at the site illegally for several years, working at night to escape detection, assisted by his friend Dick Wilbur and several Bedouin workers. Bob and Dick would park their car several miles from the site and walk under cover of darkness to avoid attracting the attention of Israeli soldiers nearby. The only tools and supplies (i.e., water) they had were what they could carry.
It’s no wonder that despite years of labor, they were making little progress. Finally, Dick threatened to quit unless they went legit. Bob agreed.
Bob failed at the several universities he approached to get involved. With no academic background, he was not taken seriously. He finally decided to try the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. There he simply presented himself one morning without an appointment and asked to see the senior archaeologist, Dr. Gus Van Beek, who has had a distinguished career working in Israel. Van Beek was tied up with other matters and refused to see Bob. Finally, however, Van Beek agreed to see him for ten minutes several weeks later. Bob returned to Washington at the appointed time. (It was no problem for Bob to get a plane ride to Washington.) Although the appointment was scheduled for ten minutes, two hours later they were still talking about the mysterious site in the Judean Desert. In the end, Van Beek suggested that Bob contact my teacher, Ami Mazar, at Hebrew University. In 1999 Bob went to Jerusalem to see Mazar, who palmed him off on me—or so I thought at first.
John Marco Allegro, too, was only a graduate student when he was appointed in 1953 to the team charged with piecing together, translating and publishing the Dead Sea Scrolls. Father Roland de Vaux of the École Biblique in Jerusalem, who was assembling the team, had written to the distinguished Semitist Sir Godfey Driver at Oxford, who in turn, recommended his young graduate student for the job.
Allegro was not assigned to work on the mysterious Copper Scroll. That prize went to another member of the team, a more senior, more experienced and, it is generally agreed, more brilliant scholar, Father Josef Milik. Young Allegro became involved only when none of the experts from the United States or elsewhere seemed to know how to unroll the two badly corroded copper rolls that had been found in the very back of Cave 3. The Copper Scroll was not only the most mysterious of the scrolls, it was the only intact scroll to be discovered by scholars in their race with the Bedouin to find more scrolls after the initial discovery of the seven nearly intact scrolls in 1946 or early 1947. In many respects the Copper Scroll was the prize of prizes. Letters could vaguely be seen impressed (hammered) into the copper and appeared slightly raised on the back of the two rolled-up copper sheets, but they would be meaningless unless the two rolls could be opened. The danger was that, in the course of opening, the corroded copper might simply crumble into dust. All the suggestions about wax and chemicals seemed unsatisfactory. No one had a plan—until John Allegro was successful in persuading the authorities to send one of the rolls to his hometown of Manchester, England. There, 049Professor Wright Baker of the Manchester College of Technology came up with a plan to open it, not by unrolling it, but by cutting the layers one-by-one into half-moons or semi-circular scoops. Baker tested his method on the first roll, and it seemed to work. Allegro was then allowed to take the second roll to Manchester as well. There he worked closely with Baker and was the first scholar to see the text of the opened Copper Scroll.
Allegro made a transcription and translation of the contents as best he could and transmitted them to his colleagues in Jerusalem. Essentially, the text was simply a list—without any accompanying narrative—of 64 sites where huge quantities of treasure were buried. Allegro was eager to get the word out to the public, but his colleagues appeared to be in no hurry. They also feared an enormous treasure hunt—by the Bedouin and others—if the contents became known. This may have been why, in the short statement that was released to the press, they described the contents as merely “a collection of traditions.”1 In an article published at the same time in Biblical Archaeologist, Milik wrote, “It almost goes without saying that the document is not an historical record of actual treasures.”2
It is not clear whether this statement was made to prevent looters from trying to identify the sites or because the team of scholars actually believed it. At any rate, almost all scholars now agree that the text is intended to identify real, not fictional, sites. The identification of the sites is not embedded in a story; each site is simply described quite literally. And why write the descriptions on copper, if not to emphasize the importance of preserving the identifications? As Professor Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins University has written, “It is extremely difficult to imagine that anyone would have gone to the trouble to prepare a costly sheet of pure copper and imprint it with such an extensive and sober list of locations unless he had been entrusted with hiding a real and immensely valuable treasure and wanted to make a record of his work that could withstand the ravages of time.”3
Unfortunately, the descriptions in the scroll are not precise, although it is possible to identify the general area. From references in the descriptions, it appears that most of the treasure is buried near Qumran, near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and at sites in between, closer to Qumran than to Jerusalem. Among those that particularly caught Allegro’s attention was the very first site mentioned:
In the ruin that is in the Valley of Achor, under the steps, with the entrance at the east a distance of forty cubits: a strongbox of silver and its vessels—17 talents by weight.
The second and third sites seem to be related to the first:
In the tomb, in the third course of stones: 100 ingots of gold.
In the big cistern that is in the courtyard of the perisytyle, at its bottom, concealed by a sealing ring, across from the upper opening: 900 talents of silver coins.
The 20th site also refers to the Valley of Achor:
Between two boulders in the Valley of Achor, right at the midpoint between them, dig down three cubits: Two cauldrons full of coins.
The Valley of Achor is also referred to several times in the Bible—in Joshua 7:24–26, in Isaiah 65:10 and in Hosea 2:15.
The Copper Scroll’s descriptions of three other sites (23, 24 and 27) mention Secacah, a desert city mentioned in the Bible (Joshua 15:61). At one time scholars identified it with the ruins at Qumran. Allegro himself subscribed to that identification.
In 1960 and 1961 Allegro led several expeditions hoping to find some of the treasures of the Copper Scroll, carefully trying to follow the scroll’s Delphic directions. In the Valley of Achor, Allegro focused on Khirbet Mird, the Ruins of Mird.
The most dramatic ruin at Mird is the remains of a Hasmonean palace/fortress from the second or first century B.C.E. (and rebuilt by Herod the 051Great [37–4 B.C.E.]) on the top of an imposing mountain. It was constructed on a level area supported by subterranean vaults used as cisterns and consists of rooms enclosing a central courtyard on three sides. Many of the finely hewn ashlars (rectangular stones) with elegant margins have survived, along with column-drums and capitals. Where two columns come together at corners, they formed a heart-shaped column (in cross-section). Some of these elegant heart-shaped drums have also survived. At the base of the mountain is a cemetery with dozens of graves from the same time as the palace/fortress.
The adjacent valley had been identified as the Biblical Valley of Achor by the eminent Bible scholar Martin Noth in 1955, and the suggestion had been seconded after several small excavations of Biblical-period sites by Frank Cross (another member of the Dead Sea Scroll publication team) and Father Milik.
In the Byzantine period (fourth–seventh century C.E.), Christian monks transformed the site into a monastery. In Greek it was called Castellion, derived from the Latin castellum (fortress), thus preserving a memory of the earlier Hasmonean and Herodian remains as a fortress. The Arabic name Mird also preserves the memory; mird is a corruption of the Syrian-Aramaic word marda, also meaning fortress. But the site is even better known as Hyrcania, preserving the name of the Hasmonean Jewish ruler John Hyrcanus (134–104 B.C.E.), who perhaps constructed the original palace. Several monastic cells from the Byzantine period abut a Herodian wall. A chapel with a white mosaic floor and a roof supported by two arches still stands. Nearby, a burial cave with eight Byzantine pit graves was also discovered on the hilltop. Water was supplied by two impressive plastered aqueducts that collected runoff water. The water from infrequent desert rain was collected in cisterns—more than 20 were found at the site.
Like many other treasure hunters, Allegro tried to identify the eastern wall 40 cubits from the steps or, to use the precise words of the Copper Scroll, “Under the steps, with the entrance at the east a distance of forty cubits.” Allegro also explored the surrounding areas, including the beginning of two strange tunnels at the foot of the north side of the mountain that had been identified in a survey of the area by G.H.R. Wright in the late 1950s.4 Allegro dug a bit in one of them but soon abandoned it when he did not quickly reach the end.5 In all his excavations at Mird, he found not a hint of treasure. As Allegro’s daughter wrote in 054her recent biography of her father: “With disappointment, in the end they [Allegro’s party] had to leave Mird’s story unspoken … The place was full of possibilities, but they remained secret.”6
Now back to my part in the story. I agreed to go to the site Bob wanted to excavate almost as a way of getting rid of him. Early in the morning, he picked me up in his rental car and headed straight for the desert. Turning off the main road, we drove past the army base and out to the area of the site. There is only one track for cars in this wilderness, but we soon left it behind with little regard for safety and even less for the rental car. Close to the site, we abandoned the abused car and continued on foot. At the site Bob led me to one of the tunnels at Hyrcania/Khirbet Mird at the base of the mountain that Allegro had rediscovered in his earlier explorations. It was the western tunnel where Allegro had excavated for about 100 feet.
I was astounded. There, in the white limestone, was a carefully chiseled opening 6 feet high and 3 feet wide, with steps leading into the darkness below. We entered the tunnel and carefully descended, using our flashlights to see where we were going. I noticed that along the sides at evenly spaced intervals near the top of the walls were ancient niches for oil lamps to provide illumination for the workers who dug the tunnel or possibly for subsequent visitors. The soot from the lamps was visible above the niches.
From the point where Allegro had stopped, the passage was only a small rabbit hole Bob had created by partially removing the fill. I asked how far this very small, very steep, unstable excavation extended. About another 50 feet, he said.
I was fearful of crawling any farther. Unlike the rest of the tunnel, which was carved from solid limestone, this excavation was through the sand and mud that had filled the tunnel over the centuries. The hole was so small that only one person would fit, and even then, there was no way to turn around to get out. When Bob said he wanted to go on, I told him I would meet him outside. Undeterred, Bob went to the end and brought back a sample.
When he returned with the sample, he asked me what I thought. Without hesitation I replied, “Let’s do it.”
Bob returned to the States to make arrangements while I took care of the permits through the staff archaeological officer of Judea and Samaria. I also arranged for a generator to power lights in the tunnel and a Jeep for transportation.
We both arranged for staff and workers—some of Bob’s friends, students from the Hebrew University, another Israeli archaeologist named Jacob Kalman and his son Joshua, as well as a group of Bedouin. The chief Bedouin was a man named Joseph Amaria whom I had known years before; he was one my workers during the excavation of another of Herod’s desert fortress/palaces—at Herodium. I recalled that Joseph had once told me that Temple treasures were buried in a tunnel at Hyrcania. I thought the description, typically embellished in good Middle Eastern style, was so exaggerated that it could not be taken seriously. I had asked him why no Bedouin had dug there and recovered the treasure. He answered solemnly that this was forbidden, as a genie guarded the entrance to the tunnel. But he was an excellent worker at Herodium, so I enlisted his help at Hyrcania—and he was happy to oblige.
In April 2000, exactly 40 years after Allegro first explored the beginning of the tunnel, we began our excavation.
We worked for nearly a month, camping on the plain adjacent to the mouth of the wadi. We loaded the dirt into buckets. The buckets were then loaded into sandbags, which were then tied to an electric winch line and pulled up the tunnel to the entrance. The weather was good, everyone was working well as a team, and a routine was established.
About 150 feet from the entrance, however, the tunnel made a bend to the west and then ended abruptly in a flat wall. The main tunnel wall, 055however, seemed to continue on its original path. This created a kind of doorpost on the side of the tunnel, which we began to call the mezuzah, the little box containing Biblical verses often seen on the doorposts of Jewish homes.
Our normal practice at night was to have two people at the entrance to the tunnel with the generator running, lights on and a radio turned on for safety. One evening when I decided to return to Jerusalem for the night, Bob decided to go down to the tunnel alone instead of bringing a second person. And he decided to shut down the generator and turn off the radio to conserve the batteries. Around midnight, two Bedouin came up the wadi and started to carry off the generator. The noise woke Bob up. He turned his flashlight on them, shining it directly into their eyes. They dropped the generator, and one of the would-be thieves ran for dear life. The other froze. He was rewarded for his indecision with a blow from Bob’s flashlight to encourage his departure. Instead of fleeing, however, the Bedouin pulled a knife and attacked Bob, returning the favor with a series of cuts. To Bob’s good fortune, the commander of the nearby paratroop base decided to visit our camp that night. He arrived just in time to break up the fight by firing his weapon into the air. The Bedouin ran off, and Bob was evacuated to the army base. After first aid, he was sent to a hospital in Jerusalem, where the doctor stitched him up.
This provided enough excitement for the dig, and it was calm for the rest of the time. When everyone returned home, the tunnel entrance was sealed up by cementing a door in place. Our intention was to return in a few weeks to continue digging.
The next two-week session did not go as well. The weather was hot, and progress was slow. The deeper we got into the tunnel, the more dependent we were on electronic communications with the outside. Expensive walkie-talkies from the States did not help much: Their price turned out to be greater than their performance. We finally solved the problem with a baby monitor we bought in Jericho for 30 shekels (less than $8). It uses simple electric wiring as a conductor. We’re still using it.
Strangely, the tunnel began to widen past the mezuzah. At the entrance it is about 6 feet wide. At 300 feet from the entrance it widens to 8 feet. The height remained the same and stairs continued to lead down at a 35° angle deeper and deeper below the mountain. It never seemed to end, however.
To complicate things further, at this point, the tunnel forked! Instead of one tunnel, we now had 060two tunnels. The west tunnel continues in the original tunnel direction, while the east tunnel veers toward the southeast and descends more steeply (45°). We decided to continue the dig on the west tunnel, excavating an additional 40 feet before we ran out of time.
In an effort to discourage any treasure hunters, we left a hundred sandbags from the last few days of digging in the tunnel to block the newly opened passage.
We then locked the entrance with a heavy metal door and went home to dream about what may be at the end of the tunnel. Was it the treasure mentioned in the Copper Scroll? Or was it a tomb, perhaps the tomb of Herod himself? While the Jewish historian Josephus says he was buried at Herodium, maybe he was wrong. The tomb has never been found there. Maybe Herod the Great was buried at Hyrcania, at the end of an enormous tunnel under the mound where his palace stood in all its grandeur.
A few weeks after we closed the dig for the 061season, Jacob Kalman (the archaeologist who was working with me) and I decided to visit the site, just to check on it. We found the heavy metal door closed and locked. Unfortunately, however, it was lying in the sand at the base of the wadi. Despite the iron bars that had been drilled 18 inches into the rock face to secure the door, the Bedouin managed to pull it free, probably with a camel. Nevertheless, the sandbags had continued to protect the site.
In September 2000 we were poised for a new season with a larger, faster and more powerful electrical winch, arranged for us by Mark Saltus, director of research at a midwest agricultural equipment company and shipped courtesy of American Airlines. (The shipment weighed 1 ton!) But then the second Intifada broke out, and the army cancelled our dig permit. We were allowed to return only in the fall of 2002. In the meantime, the occasional heavy rain had produced flooding in the tunnel, filling the last 100 feet of our excavation with silt.
Undeterred, we started digging out the silt from the same part of the tunnel that we had previously cleared. The heat was intense and our chief Bedouin worker complained of chest pains. Others complained of headaches and extreme tiredness. Our oxygen detector revealed that the atmosphere deep in the tunnel contained only 14 percent oxygen. Some suggested we stop for the season. But Mark Saltus and Jacob Kalman came up with the idea of using a leaf blower with a long duct to send fresh air down the tunnel. Despite general skepticism from all, they drove off to Jerusalem and came back with a leaf blower and a very long tube of the kind used on a laundry drier. It worked, sending cooler, fresher air into the tunnel.
We worked very hard for two weeks, but all we succeeded in doing was to remove the hundred feet of silt that had entered the tunnel with the winter floods.
At this point, some of our group lost their enthusiasm, and we ran out of money. Bob became incommunicado. It was only two years later, in the fall of 2004 with help from the Biblical Archaeology Society, that we were able to continue.
After working hard from dawn to dusk for 18 days and removing 500 sandbags each day, we finally reached the bottom of the two forks of the tunnel. To our great disappointment, nothing was there—just a dead end.
Archaeology wouldn’t be so exciting if it didn’t have its disappointments as well as its triumphs. And questions at Hyrcania remain. Most fundamentally, why was this tunnel dug? If not for a tomb or to hide treasure, why? Was it part of a water system? A mine? A refuge?
We assume it was dug sometime in the Hasmonean period (second–mid-first century B.C.E.) or under Herod the Great because of the date of the ruins of the fortress on top and the cemetery at the base. But the few pottery sherds we found included not only some from these periods, but also a few from the Biblical period. Another strange thing: About 150 feet from the entrance, we discovered the bones of a mature ibex.7 Since the bones had no marks or cuts on them, we conclude that the animal was buried there with his flesh intact. We had a Carbon-14 test conducted on the bones, which told us that the bones dated from between 640 and 560 B.C.E. How in the world did the bones get there hundreds of years before we suppose the tunnel was dug?
We think we know who did the actual digging of the tunnel in antiquity. According to Josephus, Herod punished political dissidents by sending them “to the fortress of Hyrcania and there put [them] to death.”8 It is quite possible that he simply worked them to death digging tunnels. It is clear that a tunnel like this in the midst of the desert could only be dug by government authority having access to an enormous amount of manpower.
In any event, we, too, have much more work to do. We want to explore the tunnel with GPR (ground penetration radar) to determine whether there are any hidden places that we might have missed. And then there is the “other” tunnel. Remember that Allegro searched for the treasure of the Copper Scroll in two tunnels at Hyrcania. The other one is 150 feet east of the tunnel that we dug. Allegro explored only the entrance of this tunnel. In many ways it is similar to our tunnel. Perhaps we will have better luck there. In the meantime, the mysteries of Hyrcania remain.
Uncredited photos courtesy of the author.
I was hardly in a position to say no. After all, in 1999 I was a mere graduate student. So when Professor Amihai Mazar, the head of the department of archaeology at the Hebrew University, asked me if I would talk to an American who wanted someone to undertake an excavation, I, of course, said I would be happy to see him. At the time, I was busy in one of the laboratories of the Institute of Archaeology studying a hoard of bronze artifacts that I had recently discovered in Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. Into the […]