1.9K-Year-Old Roman Swords Have a Story to Tell

Remarkably well-preserved weapons are discovered in an Israeli cave
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 6, 2023 11:20 AM CDT
These Roman Swords Are 1.9K Years Old, in Immaculate Shape
Four Roman-era swords and a javelin head found during a recent excavation in a cave near the Dead Sea, in Jerusalem on Wednesday.   (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Four Roman-era swords, their wooden and leather hilts and scabbards and steel blades exquisitely preserved after 1,900 years in a desert cave, surfaced in a recent excavation by Israeli archaeologists near the Dead Sea, the Israel Antiquities Authority said Wednesday. The cache of exceptionally intact artifacts was found about two months ago and tells a story of empire and rebellion, of long-distance conquest and local insurrection. Researchers, who published the preliminary findings in a newly released book, propose that the arms—four swords and the head of a javelin, known as a pilum—were stashed in the remote cavern by Jewish rebels during an uprising against the Roman Empire in the 130s. The swords were dated based on their typology and haven't yet undergone radiocarbon dating, notes the AP.

The find was part of the antiquities authority's Judean Desert Survey, which aims to document and excavate caves near the Dead Sea and secure scrolls and other precious artifacts before looters have a chance to plunder them. The cool, arid, and stable climate of the desert caves has allowed exceptional preservation of organic remains, including hundreds of ancient parchment fragments known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Archaeologists returned to this particular cave near the desert oasis of Ein Gedi to document an inscription found decades earlier. "At the back of the cave, in one of the deepest [parts] of it, inside a niche, I was able to retrieve that artifact—the Roman pilum head, which came out almost in mint condition," says Asaf Gayer, an archaeologist with Ariel University.

But though the swords were found on the Roman Empire's eastern edge, they were likely crafted in a distant European province and brought to Judaea by soldiers, says Guy Stiebel, a Tel Aviv University archaeologist specializing in Roman military history. He said the quality of their preservation was exceptionally rare for Roman weapons, with only a small handful of examples in existence. "Each one of them can tell you an entire story," he says.

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Future research will study their manufacture and the origin of the materials in order to tease out the history of the objects and the people they belonged to—Roman soldiers and Jewish rebels. "They also reflect a much grander narrative of the entire Roman Empire, and the fact that, from a small cave in a very remote place on the edge of the empire, we can actually shed light about those mechanisms is the greatest joy that the scientist can have," he says. (More ancient Rome stories.)

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