Pesach Bar-Adon and His Discoveries

Pesach Bar-Adon (above) was probably more at home in the Judean wilderness than anywhere in the world, especially at the end of his long life. Born in Poland, the son of a rabbi, Bar-Adon studied the Talmud as a boy in a yeshiva (a traditional school for Jewish religious studies).

At the age of 17, in 1925, Pesach Bar-Adon immigrated to Palestine. For a year, he worked as a laborer in the rapidly developing Mediterranean city of Tel Aviv. Then he enrolled in Oriental studies at the new Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Each evening he pitched his tent on the campus, and every morning he took it down.

Bar-Adon soon decided that his life lay outside the campus. He presented himself to the sheikh of the Zinati tribe to ask for acceptance into the Bedouin tribe as a shepherd. The sheikh granted his request, and for about a year Bar-Adon lived and dressed as a Bedouin shepherd in the Beth-Shean area and near the southern shore of the Sea of Galilee. When the anti-Jewish, Arab riots of 1929 broke out, however, he joined the Haganah, the underground Jewish army.

After the riots, Bar-Adon lived with another Bedouin tribe, this time on the Golan Heights. His life there was described in a memorial tribute by Jerusalem Post reporter Abraham Rabinovich: “He lived the hard meagre existence of a Bedouin—enduring the cold and hunger, sleeping in the rain, walking barefoot. He relished the Bedouin’s raw contact with basic emotions.”(Jerusalem Post, April 6, 1985).

Bar-Adon was an excellent horseman and later rode about the country on horseback, rifle in hand, guarding Jewish fields from marauders. It was this strong, young horseman that Hebrew University professor Benjamin Mazar, now the doyen of Israeli archaeologists, spotted on a hilltop in 1936. Mazar was on his way to excavate the exquisite underground burial caves at Beit Shearim in the Galilee and invited Bar-Adon to join him. As Mazar later recalled, “I took him off the horse and into my excavations.” That was the beginning of Bar-Adon’s career as an archaeologist. For four seasons at Beit Shearim, he learned the craft and science of archaeology under the tutelage of Mazar.

In the 1940s, Bar-Adon served as a crewman on ships bringing war refugees fleeing the Nazis and illegal arms for the Haganah into the country. At the same time, he wrote popular books about the sea and horses and also undertook his first independent archaeological dig at Bet Yerah, by the Sea of Galilee. In 1949, Bar-Adon joined the fledgling Israel Department of Antiquities—he was now a professional archaeologist!

After the momentous discovery of the first Dead Sea Scrolls in the Wadi Qumran in 1947, Israeli archaeologists, eager to find more, brought teams of searchers to caves in nearby wadis. Pesach Bar-Adon led one of these teams. In a particularly inaccessible cave (below) overlooking the Nahal Mishmar, his team uncovered one of the most spectacular finds of the entire expedition a 5,500-year-old hoard of copper (and some ivory) cultic objects of extraordinarily high quality, both metallurgically and aesthetically. The beautifully crafted, superbly preserved hoard lay wrapped in a straw mat and hidden in a niche in the cave, known today as the Cave of the Treasure. (Above, Bar-Adon examines the hoard shortly after its discovery; the straw mat appears at lower center.) Dated to the Chalcolithic period (c. 3500 B.C.E.), the hoard comprised 429 copper artifacts, including about 240 objects interpreted as mace heads, about 80 scepters (some of which appear in photos below, the latter decorated with four ibex heads) and ten crowns ornamented with numerous birds and human faces. Some perforated ivory objects of unknown function were also discovered with the hoard. The finds are considered cult or prestige objects, possibly used in worship at a nearby Chalcolithic temple dating to the same time. But where they were made, exactly how and by whom they were used and why they were hidden remain mysteries.

This dramatic discovery established Bar-Adon professionally and, in a little country whose national pastime is archaeology, brought fame to this maverick archaeologist.

To the end of his life, Bar-Adon continued surveying and excavating sites in the Judean wilderness. This led him to attempt to identify “the inheritance of the children of Judah . … In the wilderness: Beth Arabah, Middin, Secacah, Nibshan, the City of Salt and Ein Gedi; six cities with their villages” (Joshua 15:20, 61–62). He succeeded in matching this list with six sites from the Iron II period (1000–586 B.C.E.) along the western coast of the Dead Sea: Rujm el-Bahr, Khirbet Mazin, Qumran, Ein el-Ghaweir, Ein el-Turaba and Ein Gedi respectively. From north to south, the sites progress in the same order as on the list in Joshua, with the exception of Khirbet Mazin and Qumran, which, according to his identification, are interchanged. Bar-Adon found that these sites resembled forts more than cities and that they dated probably to the eighth century B.C.E. Forts would be consistent with the statement in 2 Chronicles 26:10 that King Uzziah of Judah (770–739 B.C.E.) “built towers in the wilderness.” Such a string of fortified settlements would have defended the eastern border of the kingdom and would have controlled access to important trade routes through the Judean wilderness. Based on this hypothesis, their inclusion in the list of Judah’s inheritance could be interpreted as an anachronistic insertion.

When Bar-Adon died in 1985 at the age of 77, his report on his latest excavations in the Judean wilderness lay incomplete and unpublished. It was prepared for publication (in ‘Atiquot 9 [1989]) by his friend and colleague Zvi Greenhut, who based the accompanying article on its findings.—Ed.