Fifty years have passed since Pessah Bar-Adon discovered, in a cave in the Judean Desert canyon of Nahal Mishmar, the biggest hoard of ancient artifacts ever found in the Land of Israel: 429 copper objects, wrapped in a reed mat. Five decades and dozens of academic papers after their discovery, the enigma of how and why these 6,000-year-old ritual objects ended up in a remote cave in the Judean Desert is still unsolved.
The Forum for the Research of the Chalcolithic Period, “a group of academics interested in this prehistoric age”, according to Dr. Ianir Milevski (Israel Antiquities Authority), gathered on June 2 at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in order to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of the most important find from this period: the Nahal Mishmar copper hoard. After a day of presenting new insights pertaining to the copper objects, the conference wrapped up with a discussion on the source of the items in the cave and the reason they were hidden there. The debate emphasized what has remained unsolved after 50 years of research: while it is widely accepted that the hoard is an assembly of ritual objects, there still is no agreement or plausible reason as to where the objects came from and why they were stashed away.
The treasure was found while looking for something completely different. In 1947, Bedouins from the Ta’amireh tribe, who roamed the Judean Desert, discovered ancient parchments hidden in the caves of the sheer cliffs of the canyons leading down to the Dead Sea. Once it was discovered that these brittle parchments could bring in money when sold to dealers in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the Bedouins turned into avid archaeologists, scouring the desert caves in search of ancient scrolls.
In the 1950s, new scrolls sold to the dealers in Bethlehem, which was part of Jordan at the time, led archaeologists working in Jordan to discover letters and other artifacts in Nahal Murabba’at, south of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls had been found. As more pieces of ancient scrolls began to appear in the antiquities market, it was clear that some of them were coming from the Israeli side of the Judean Desert. The desert border between Israel and Jordan was a straight unmarked line on the map, inaccessible to vehicles. The Bedouins, even if they had heard of the newly set-up border, did not recognize it and crossed over freely from side to side.
Immediately after the War of Independence, Prof. Eliezer Sukenik, the dean of Israeli archaeologists and the father of Yigael Yadin, discussed the need to survey the caves on the Israeli side of the Judean Desert. Sukenik had purchased the first three complete Dead Sea Scrolls on the eve of the War of Independence and his son would later purchase the four remaining complete scrolls in New York. The year that Sukenik died, 1953, the first, impromptu Israeli desert cave survey was conducted.