Digging In The Caves Of Mareshah

Oct 3, 2017 | Bible Archeology | 0 comments

The people who lived at Mareshah were artistic, industrious and ingenious – and many of them lived in caves.

During the Old Testament period the residents of Mareshah lived on top of a hill, now a tell. In the Roman period the large city was on the plain to the north of the tell, but in the Greek period, residents dug caves on the side of the hill and lived and worked there. It was really a good idea because it provided them with cheap housing which was virtually air-conditioned. In summer it was much cooler in the caves than outside, and in the winter they were shielded from the cold.

The comparatively soft limestone that came out of the caves provided building stone for constructing houses above ground, while the resulting cave could be used for the storage of goods, water cisterns and workshops. Many caves were equipped with facilities for crushing olives to obtain olive oil.

Other large caves were cut as dovecotes. Chambers were dug out of the soft rock and niches cut in the walls. The doves got the message and came and built their nests in the openings provided. Thousands of such niches were cut. The doves could then be caught and eaten, or it is likely that many were sold in Jerusalem for the sacrifices provided in the Mosaic law. In addition, some residents cut elegant tombs in the rock. The most spectacular tombs ever found in Israel are at Mareshah.

One such tomb consists of a large, underground T-shaped room, the walls of which are brightly painted with animals. Along the walls are 41 gable-shaped loculi, or burial niches. There is even a poignant inscription on the wall of one of the tombs. It seems to have been some sort of a love poem and reads, “I can neither suffer anything for you nor give you pleasure. Loving you dearly I lie with another, but by Aphrodite I rejoice greatly at one thing. Your cloak lies as security but I run away and leave you with complete freedom to do what you will.” We can only guess at what lies behind that poem.

But when the Roman era came a new city was built in the plain and it became one of the most important cities in Israel. It attracted such wealth and power that it even boasted an amphitheatre. The cave dwellings were abandoned and over the centuries rubbish has been dumped in the caves, winter rains washed in soil and debris, and occasional strangers have taken up residence there.

It was to trace the later history of one of these caves that our Diggings group excavated one such cave in our 2004 dig. Every year we conduct a three week tour through Egypt, Jordan and Israel. At the end of the tour, group members have the option of staying in Israel for another week to work as volunteers on the dig. Usually about 60% choose to stay with us for the dig, but this year the entire group of twelve remained for the excavations, and two ladies even came to Israel just for the dig.

As usual our group was a mixture of young and old, male and female. The youngest was ten-year-old Ted Walker and his mother Paula. Earlier in the year I gave a series of lectures at Mudgee in central NSW and Paula and young Ted attended. I was impressed with Ted’s interest and knowledge of Egyptian history and suggested the tour and dig to them. Paula worked hard to round up the finances for the tour and they made it. Ted worked hard and intelligently, and was rewarded by finding several important items.

David Coltheart supervised most of the group working at one end of the cave while I worked with the rest at the other end. We had some hard work to do but were amply rewarded by the finds we made. From the artifacts found we concluded that at a later period some people had taken up residence in the cave and had cut large blocks of stone which they had probably used to sit on, or maybe store their goods on.

We found many animal bones among the debris but no human bones, so it would seem that the occupants had not been killed and their bodies left there. On the other hand it would seem that their end came unexpectedly because we found an unusual number of complete oil lamps, well-preserved saucers, a perfume bottle, and several large wine jars. Ted even found a signet ring that may have been used as a stamp seal by its owner.

The wine jars were lying on their sides where they had apparently fallen, but they were complete when we found them. Unfortunately the pressure of the earth that had accumulated above them had caused them to crack and we had to remove them in large pieces. Conservators will have no difficulty on piecing them together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Having a sizeable group working on the dig we were able to remove a large amount of debris but this all had to be carried to the srface and sieved for any possible items we had missed. Every so often, when most of the buckets had been filled, we found the best way to handle the transportation of the plastic buckets to the surface was to form a chain gang and hand the buckets one to another till they reached the top. In this way the work was done quickly and without too much effort.

Our group stayed in the nearby Kibbutz Beit Govrin which provided three good meals each day, and we slept in air-conditioned bungalows, though the weather was comparatively cool and we hardly needed the air-conditioning. Being in the country we had no more security concerns than we would have had in our home countries. In fact during the whole of the tour in Egypt, Jordan and Israel life went on as usual and there were no incidents. There are danger spots in Israel but we know where these are and keep away from them. We would have liked to visit places like Jacob’s Well, Hebron and Shiloh but these places are off limits for the present. However there are plenty of other sites that are as safe as tourist sites in Australia or America, and these make the tour worthwhile.


Article used with permission of Diggins Online. You can find more useful material at Apologtetics Courses, Free Courses and Brethren Assembly. Secular materials can be found at Coins Encyclopedia and Guide For Income

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