The Cave of the Treasure

Inspired by the discovery of the first Dead Sea Scroll in 1947, archaeologists scoured the natural caves that spot the wadis, or dry river beds, adjacent to Qumran. Inside a remote cave overlooking Nahal Mishmar, archaeologist Pesach Bar-Adon and his team of searchers discovered over 400 cultic artifacts—most were copper, with some ivory and hematite—dating to the late Chalcolithic period (c. 3500 B.C.E.). Above, Bar-Adon examines the cache, found wrapped in the reed mat beside him, in what came to be called the Cave of the Treasure.

Now displayed at the Israel Museum, the cave artifacts illustrate the sophistication of copper-work by Chalcolithic smiths, the first people to work widely with metal. Even the most ornate objects, including the copper crown decorated with birds and architectural elements, at top left in the group photo, were cast in one piece by the lost-wax process, whereby molten copper replaces wax in a mold that is later removed. The group shot also includes a basket-shaped jar; a scepter with a beak-like projection; rounded mace heads of copper and hematite (more than 240 of these apparently popular weapons were discovered in the cave); a mace with a swivel head; a scepter with a human head; a horn-shaped object; and a mace head topped by a fantastical, two-headed ibex.

Ibex with straight, grooved horns also appear on one of 80 copper standards discovered in the cave; at center is a wild goat, identified by his twisted horns. (The emphasis on horns transcended media and region; they also appear on pottery bowls and basalt pillar figures from the Golan pictured in “Before History: The Golan’s Chalcolithic Heritage.” The head of another copper standard consists of a flat plaque shaped as a soaring vulture. Although bird motifs appear elsewhere on the cave finds, as on the crown, this is the only entire object in the form of a bird.

Tel Aviv University archaeologist David Ussishkin has identified the hoard as cultic paraphernalia removed from a regional temple beside the neighboring spring of Ein Gedi and placed in the cave for safekeeping. Others identify the artifacts as the tools and wares of itinerant coppersmiths. The copper, which includes traces of arsenic and other elements, is not local; the nearest sources for arsenical copper lie in the Caucasus Mountains, Anatolia and Iran. While some have suggested that the artifacts themselves came from the north as well, other scholars maintain that local smiths produced these objects from imported ores.

At Shiqmim, in the Beersheba region, archaeologist Thomas Levy discovered a copper mace head and a scepter similar in design and arsenic content to the cave finds.10 Levy’s excavations also revealed one of the Near East’s earliest copper workshops, with tools, ornaments, slag and ore from Wadi Feinan in Jordan, about 80 miles south of Shiqmim. Levy and Sariel Shalev suggest that while this workshop used only local copper, a second Chalcolithic workshop, specializing in the elaborate artifacts found in the Nahal Mishmar cave and at Shiqmim, awaits discovery.