An extraordinary artifact has recently been discovered in the Judean foothills south of Jerusalem, dating from the time of the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome (132–135 A.D.). It is a lead weight bearing the name, in Hebrew letters, of the leader of the revolt and head of state of the then newly declared nation of Israel, Simeona ben Kosba, commonly known in modern times as Bar-Kokhba. The inscription even refers to him by his title, nasi (president or head of state).
This lead weight was found in one of the numerous underground complexes in which the Jewish rebels found shelter from the Romans and kept their stores and water supplies.b
This is the first announcement of this startling find to appear in English. I wish to dedicate it to Alex Singer, of blessed memory, an officer in the Israel Defence Forces, and son of BAR’s managing editor Suzanne Singer and her husband Max Singer. While on patrol in the security zone in southern Lebanon on September 15, 1987—his 25th birthday—Alex was killed in a terrorist ambush as he attempted to save the life of his company commander.
The Bar-Kokhba Revolt in the second century A.D. was the second attempt by the Jews to free themselves from Roman shackles and to re-establish their own state. The First Jewish Revolt against Rome (66–70 A.D.) ended in the destruction of Jerusalem and the burning of the Temple. Sixty-two years later, the Jews tried again. As in the case of the First Jewish Revolt, they set up their own state and even minted their own coins. But, like the First Jewish Revolt, the second also ended in defeat. The consequences of the Second Jewish Revolt were disastrous. Very few Jews were able to remain in Judea, which became an almost entirely non-Jewish region. Not until 1948 was a Jewish state again declared in the land of Israel.
The First Jewish Revolt was chronicled in minute detail by the first-century Jewish historian Josephus. Unfortunately, the Second Jewish Revolt had no Josephus, so comparatively little is known about it. Until recently, we were almost entirely dependent on 013a few scattered references in rabbinic literature, some writings of the early Church Fathers and a few classical authors like Dio Cassius. In the last 30 or 40 years, however, archaeology has begun to fill out the picture.
One of the most dramatic elements in the archaeological picture is the recent discovery of more than 300 underground hiding complexes at more than 100 sites, used by the rebels in the Judean Shephelah, or foothills, west of the central mountain ridge on which Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron sit (see map). We have also identified seven such systems in the Hebron mountains, and we will very probably discover more in time.
In the area of the Shephelah, a layer of hard limestone known as nari, about 4 or 5 feet thick, covers the easily cut chalk layer below. From time immemorial the inhabitants have cut various installations—caves, tombs, storage rooms, cisterns—into both the limestone and the chalk beneath it.
The underground installations from the Second Jewish Revolt, however, are unique in the way the various installations are connected. Sometimes utilizing earlier cavities and sometimes digging new ones, the rebels created cisterns, storage rooms, even meeting rooms with benches; then they connected them with low tunnels and shafts which we call burrows (mehilot, from Isaiah 2:19) because they are so small and narrow. Similar burrows provide entry from outside to the underground installations. Together the installations and the burrows create a veritable warren where the rebels could take refuge from their Roman pursuers, protected by the difficulty the Roman soldiers would have in traversing the low, narrow burrows.
Almost all of these underground complexes are located beneath ancient settlements. The underground complexes are of two types. The first type is usually located under the remains of living quarters and was apparently intended for family use. This type of underground complex consists of an entrance that was camouflaged, a burrow and several small rooms. Such a complex could be used by one or several families, and could hold from 20 to 40 people. Usually a water cistern was included in the complex.
The second type of underground complex was much larger, a kind of public refuge. Its plan was complicated and included large rooms—some of which are actually halls that could hold scores of people, long branching burrows that could be blocked by various means and elaborate entrances that could be sealed with relatively sophisticated devices.
Both types of underground complexes were quarried intentionally for the purpose, although sometimes incorporating existing cavities from earlier periods.
The characteristic burrows identify the complexes as secret hideaways, places of refuge. Cut into soft chalk, the burrows are so low and narrow that they can be traversed only by crawling on hands and knees, sometimes only by creeping. The height of these passages is usually less than a foot and a half. In one case the burrow is less than 10 inches high, making even creeping difficult.
The openings to the entry burrows are also narrow and low. The entrances themselves were concealed and then blocked from the inside. (This distinguishes these entrances from tomb entrances that were blocked from the outside.) The burrow entrances were blocked by sealing stones. Sometimes the sealing stones were locked in place by a beam and bolt or supported by additional stone supports. The entrances were in a variety of places, such as in irregularly shaped raves that provided camouflage, in storerooms, in olive presses, in columbaria (pigeon-raising installations), and below the floors of private and public buildings. The entrances are usually about 2 feet wide and 2 feet high. A burrow connected the entrance to the various rooms inside that were hewn in advance and then incorporated into the hiding complex.
The various burrows within a complex could easily be sealed off and blocked or subdivided into sections that could be closed off from the complex as a whole. And obviously these burrows were extraordinarily difficult for an enemy to penetrate and attack. The burrows often change direction, forming sharp angles that make it especially difficult for attackers who, at best, can proceed only one at a time. Vertical shafts often extend from horizontal burrows, leading to other horizontal burrows at a lower or higher level. An attacker descending or ascending a burrow shaft could easily be surprised by someone waiting at the other end, and this while the attacker’s hands were busy trying to climb and therefore unavailable to use his weapons. The shaft could also be blocked by a stone placed at its upper or lower end.
The first of these underground hideaways from the 015Second Jewish Revolt was found in the Judean Shephelah only in 1978 by David Allon, an inspector of the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums. While looking for evidence of illicit cave robbing by villagers searching for antiquities, Allon was told of some subterranean warrens west of Hebron. It is likely that the plethora of coins from the Second Jewish Revolt that have appeared on the market in recent years came from the illicit exploration of these cave complexes by the local villagers.
Since this discovery in 1978, a major effort to investigate and map these hiding complexes has been undertaken by the Department of Antiquities, headed by the author with the assistance of many other collaborators. Much of the work has been carried out by members of several kibbutzim in the area and staff members at field schools of the Society for the Protection of Nature.
In the winter of 1987 a youth group from the Lachish region and Kiryat Gat was helping us with our work at a site called Horvat Alim. While crawling in one of the burrows, Ilan Udeko felt a hard, heavy object on the floor and called it to the attention of the group’s leader and guide Yair Zoran. They decided it was not an ordinary stone or a potsherd, so they carefully marked the find-spot and brought the object to me.
Upon examination, I could see it was a rectangular tablet. I carefully removed some of the detritus that clung to it. Signs of letters immediately appeared. Some said they looked like Arabic letters, others said Greek. As I continued to peel away the guck, it soon became apparent that the letters were square Hebrew letters.
Now the tablet has been carefully cleaned and all its elements ran be described in detail. It is in fact a lead weight in the shape of a rectangular tablet with a small handle. The tablet is about 1/3 inch (9 millimeters) thick. It measures about 3 1/2 by 2 2/3 inches (9 by 7 cm.).c
On the edge of the tablet is a zigzag line, designed to prevent the weight from being reduced without detection. If the zigzag line was there, the purchaser of whatever commodity the weight was being used to measure could be sure of getting full measure. Without such a line, an unscrupulous merchant might chip off a few grams without anyone noticing it.
On each side of the tablet, two concentric circles in the center enclose a six-petaled rosette. The rosette was a very common decoration among Jews for over 500 years, yet no one knows whether it had some symbolic meaning or was a mere decoration. It appears frequently on Jewish ossuariesd from the first century B.C. to the second century A.D.. We also find it very often decorating clay oil lamps made in southern Palestine between the First and Second Jewish Revolts. We see it again in Roman-style synagogues such as 016Capernaum in the Galilee, as well as in Byzantine period synagogues such as Rimmon in southern Judea.
Perhaps the most significant and important elements of our lead weight—surely its most unusual aspect—are two almost identical Hebrew inscriptions, one on each face of the tablet. We shall first examine the inscription on face A (see drawing and photograph).
This inscription begins on top of the rosette, between the rosette and the handle of the weight, and then winds its way around all four sides of the rosette. Most of the letters are clear. A few have been defaced by time and one letter is missing as a result of an error in spelling. Fortunately, the letters about which there is some question can be restored on the basis of the nearly identical inscription on face B. The letters are crudely executed, especially at the bottom of face A, where they are crowded together in such a way that it is difficult to follow the order of the words. Despite these difficulties the text of the inscription is clear. Letters below in brackets have been restored. The word Israel seems to be in a line by itself at the bottom of the tablet. The word (PRS), which I shall discuss later, is in the lower right corner, adjacent to the rosette; in the translation below, I have placed this word PRS at the end of the inscription. The entire inscription reads as follows:
srp. ?wÀnrpw lary yn abswk nb nw?[Àmv
M[ >]WN BNe KWSB’ NS Y YS R’L WPRN[S W]. PRS
Shim[e]on Ben Kosba Nasi Yisrael V-parna[so]. Peras
Simeon ben Kosba president (or head of state) of Israel and his economic chief. Peras.
In 1951–1952 and 1960, documents from the Dead Sea area came to light from which we learned for the first time the real name of the hero and leader of the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome, known in later years up to the present as Bar-Kokhba. His real name, however, was Simeon ben Kosba (and in Greek, Kosiba), as we now know from the lead weight, as well from the Dead Sea documents that surfaced in 1951–1952 and 1960. Sometimes in the Dead Sea documents the name is also given as Simeon bar Kosiba, rather than Simeon ben Kosba. Ben means “son” in Hebrew (so the name is really Simeon, son of Kosba); bar means “son” in Aramaic. Apparently Simeon used both the Hebrew and Aramaic forms of son; the Hebrew form, however, appears on our lead weight.
The second side of the lead weight reads in a similar but slightly different way; starting at lower right:
srp. ywsd nw[mv wnrpw lary yn absk nb
BN KSB’ NS
Y YS R’L WPRNS W S M WN DSWY. PRS
Ben Kosba Nasi Yisrael V-parnaso Shimeon Dasoi. Peras
Ben Kosba president (or head of state) of Israel and his economic chief Simeon Dasoi. Peras.
The principal difference between the inscription on face A and face B is that in the latter the name Simeon is on a lower line and letters appear after Simeon on face B that do not appear on face A. The four assumed letters are
The final word in the inscription, peras, also presents a puzzle. Apparently it was intended to signify the weight of the tablet. In the Mishnahf the word peras is regularly used as a unit of weight one-half of another weight unit. So we would expect this particular weight to be one-half of another weight unit.
However, our lead tablet weighs 804 grams (1.8 pound), which is within two percent of the weight unit called mina (MNH), which, as described by Josephus, weighed 818.6 grams.g A weight identified as a three-mina weight was found several years ago and from it was derived that one mina weighed only 403.23 grams.h So we know of a mina of 403 grams and another of 804/818 grams; one is half the other. It may be that there was also a “big mina” or a “doubled mina” of 1608/1636 grams. In that case our lead weight could be a peras or half of a big or doubled mina.
In any event, this unique lead tablet found in a rebel hideaway provides a fascinating window onto life during the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome. It is also very important for dating the hiding system at Horvat Alim as well as the entire phenomenon of hiding complexes in Judea.
For a more complete description of these underground complexes, see our new book: Amos Kloner and Yigal Tepper, The Hiding Complexes in the Judean Shephelah, (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing and Israel Exploration Society, 1987) (Hebrew).
An extraordinary artifact has recently been discovered in the Judean foothills south of Jerusalem, dating from the time of the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome (132–135 A.D.). It is a lead weight bearing the name, in Hebrew letters, of the leader of the revolt and head of state of the then newly declared nation of Israel, Simeona ben Kosba, commonly known in modern times as Bar-Kokhba. The inscription even refers to him by his title, nasi (president or head of state). This lead weight was found in one of the numerous underground complexes in which the Jewish rebels found […]