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Dead Sea reveals four 1,900-year-old Roman swords in cave

Archaeologists Hagay Hamer (L) and Oriya Amichay (R) with one of the swords found in the cave. Photography Amir Ganor Israel Antiquities Authority
Archaeologists Hagay Hamer and Oriya Amichay with one of the swords found in the cave

A cache of four excellently preserved Roman swords have been discovered by Israeli researchers in a cave overlooking the Dead Sea.

Three of the 1,900-year-old weapons, whose iron blades are 60-65cm long (24-26in), were still in wooden scabbards.

They were found in a near-inaccessible crevice by a team photographing an ancient inscription on a stalactite.

Archaeologists believe the swords were hidden by Judean rebels after they were seized from the Roman army as booty.

"This is a dramatic and exciting discovery, touching on a specific moment in time," Eli Escusido, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), said in a statement.

Mr Escusido said that the dry desert climate around the Dead Sea enabled the preservation of artefacts that would not survive elsewhere in Israel.

"This is a unique time capsule, whereby fragments of scrolls, coins from the Jewish Revolt, leather sandals, and now even swords in their scabbards, sharp as if they had only just been hidden away today."

At work in the cave. Photography Oriya Amichai, Israel Antiquities Authority
The archaeologists excavate the cave - with an extraordinary view

Fifty years ago, a stalactite with an incomplete ink inscription written in ancient Hebrew script was found in a small cave high on a cliff above the Dead Sea, north of the En Gedi oasis in eastern Israel.

Archaeologist Dr Asaf Gayer of Ariel University, geologist Boaz Langford of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and photographer Shai Halevi of the IAA recently went to the cave with the aim of using multispectral photography to decipher parts of the inscription not visible to the naked eye.

While on the upper level of the cave, Dr Gayer spotted a well-preserved Roman pilum, or javelin, in a narrow crevice. He also found worked wood in a nearby niche that turned out to be parts of the swords' scabbards.

The researchers reported the discovery and returned with another team to carry out a survey of all the crevices in the cave, during which the swords were uncovered.

The three swords that were still in their wooden scabbards were identified as Roman spatha, or long swords, while the fourth, shorter weapon was identified as a ring-pommel sword.

They had well-fashioned handles made of wood or metal.

Leather strips and pieces of wood and metal belonging to them were also found.

"It looked a bit like a pile of books. But - swords!" said archaeologist Oriya Amichay. "Sure, we know the story from history. But to see such a find is to look history in the face."

The sword stashed away in a hidden spot in the cave. Photography Dafna Gazit Israel Antiquities Authority
Three of the swords were found with their iron blades inside wooden scabbards

Archaeologists say the hiding of the swords and pilum in the cave suggests that the weapons were taken by Judean rebels from Roman soldiers as booty or from the battlefield.

They were then purposefully hidden for reuse, possibly during the second major Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire in Judea - the Bar Kochba Revolt (132AD-135AD).

"We are just beginning the research on the cave and the weapon cache discovered in it, aiming to try to find out who owned the swords, and where, when, and by whom they were manufactured," said Dr Eitan Klein, a director of the Judean Desert Survey Project.