It seems like December is becoming a month for great discoveries in the Holy Land. What archeologists are describing as “one of the most impressive burial caves discovered in Israel,” a 2000-year-old Second Temple-Period burial cave designated the Salome Cave was uncovered in the Lachish Forest. The cave was found in an excavation carried out as part of the Judean Kings’ Trail Project led by the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Ministry for Jerusalem and Heritage, and the Jewish National Fund.
This is just the latest in a string of amazing archeological discoveries recently made in Israel. For example, Israeli archeologists recently uncovered a sling bullet (used in a slingshot) dating back to the Hellenistic period. The 2,200-year-old sling bullet bears the inscription “Victory of Heracles and Hauronas.” Intended to ensure victory in battle, the inscription is thought to have been a part of a type of psychological warfare.
Also, just in time for Chanukah, Israeli archeologists uncovered a rare wooden box, found in the Judean Desert, containing a small hoard of 15 silver coins, dated to the days leading up to the Maccabean Revolt. Israel Antiquities Authority said that the box offers evidence for a dramatic moment in the history of the Jewish people: the rebellion against the Syrian Greeks, the establishment of self-rule in Israel, and the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in the Second century BCE.
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Not only that, The earliest evidence of the use of cotton fibers in the Ancient Near East, and among the oldest in the world, from about 7000 years ago, was found in Tel Tsef in the Jordan Valley, in an excavation led by Prof. Danny Rosenberg from the School of Archeology and Maritime Cultures at Haifa University.
As for the burial cave, it was in use through the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods, becoming known as the Salome Cave, due to a popular tradition that identified it as the burial place of Salome, the midwife of Jesus. The excavation of the courtyard uncovered a row of shop stalls that, according to the excavators, sold or rented clay lamps. “In the shop, we found hundreds of complete and broken lamps dating from the 8th–9th centuries CE,” say Nir Shimshon-Paran and Zvi Firer, excavation directors in the Israel Antiquities Authority Southern Region. “The lamps may have served to light up the cave, or as part of the religious ceremonies, similarly to candles distributed today at the graves of righteous figures, and in churches.”
The burial cave in the Lachish Forest was first exposed 40 years ago by antiquity looters who broke into the cave, following which an archaeological excavation was carried out by Prof. Amos Kloner of the Antiquities Department. The cave comprised several chambers with multiple rock-hewn kokhim (burial niches) and broken ossuaries (stone boxes), attesting to the Jewish burial custom. The Jewish custom of secondary burial in stone ossuaries is well-known in the archaeological record, but the surprise was the adaptation of the cave into a Christian chapel. Judging by the crosses and the dozens of inscriptions engraved on the cave walls in the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods, the chapel was dedicated to the sacred Salome.
“The name Salome (or in Hebrew: Shalom or Shlomit) was a common Jewish name in the Second Temple period and was also known in the Hasmonean and Herodian families,” say Paran and Firer. “According to a Christian tradition, Salome was the midwife from Bethlehem, who was called to participate in the birth of Jesus. She could not believe that she was asked to deliver a virgin’s baby, and her hand became dry and was only healed when she held the baby’s cradle.”
The cave itself was excavated many years ago, and now the Israel Antiquities Authority, is exposing the elaborate cave forecourt. The court, extending over 350 sq. m, is surrounded by ashlar stone walls and has stone slab and mosaic floors. The entrances leading into the cave and the interior chapel were exposed, some of the stones carved with fine decorative vegetal designs, including rosettes, pomegranates and acanthus vases, characteristic Jewish features. The forecourt and the cave itself attest that the family tomb belonged to a wealthy Jewish family who invested much effort into preparing the cave. It is noteworthy that the court leading into burial caves was usually hewn out of the rock, and not elaborately built of ashlar masonry as this forecourt.
The veneration of Salome and the use of the forecourt and the cave continued down to the ninth century CE, after the Moslem conquest. It is interesting that some of the inscriptions were inscribed in Arabic, whilst the Christian believers continued to pray at the site.
“Salome is a mysterious figure,” say the researchers. “The family tomb attests that its owners were a family of high status in the Judean Shefelah in the Second Temple period. The cult of Salome, sanctified in Christianity, belongs to a broader phenomenon, whereby the fifth-century CE Christian pilgrims encountered and sanctified Jewish sites. The name Salome may possibly have appeared in antiquity on one of the (no-longer extant) ossuaries in the tomb, and the tradition identifying the site with Salome the midwife developed, the cave becoming venerated by Christianity.”