Khirbet el-Maqatir (West Bank) : A 2,000-year-old murder

When archaeologists said 7 women and a youth found in caves were slain by Romans during the Great Revolt, settlers secretly stepped in to illegally pay their last respects

Amanda Borschel-Dan

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Pottery3 221 e1505209941223 1024x640In the course of an archaeological dig in a cave complex at the site of Khirbet el-Maqatir in 2013, a jumble of bones from these eight individuals were discovered amongst Roman arrowheads and nails from soldiers’ boots, alongside ceramic and numismatic findings for the Second Temple period.

I have no doubt that these people perished in AD 69 at the hands of the Romans,” said archaeologist Scott Stripling, who co-directed the 20-year excavation there on behalf of an American consortium called the Associates for Biblical Research. The team of archaeologists set out to prove that Khirbet el-Maqatir, some nine miles (15 kilometers) north of Jerusalem, was the location of the biblical city Ai mentioned in the book of Joshua, as well as the possible site of Ephraim written in the New Testament Book of John.

Cave 3 access hole e1505210113467 300x480The access hole to Cave 3 at the Khirbet el-Maqatir archaeological site. (Facebook)

This was already a big year for the team. Among other finds in 2013 from a swath of periods of Israelite and Amorite settlement, including a rare Egyptian scarab that was made in the early 18th dynasty, ca. 1485-1418 BCE, the dig uncovered a complex of three caves, and eight bodies who had apparently been murdered.

One held an olive oil press, flanked by two ritual baths, where five of the skeletons were found; one held oil run off; and in the third, which appeared to be a secret hideout, the other three skeletons were uncovered.

The excavation had previously uncovered a typical late Second Temple period tomb with seven kokim, holes cut or dug into the sepulcher chamber which have room for a corpse and nothing more, in accordance of Jewish burial customs in the Jerusalem area from about 20 BCE until the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

Stripling said it was the later find that moved him, though.

The human remains in the tomb did not affect me emotionally; however, the bones of these murder victims did stir me,” said Stripling. “I thought much about the terror that must have filled the final moments of their lives. It seemed providential that almost 2,000 years later I would be the one to finally tell their story.”

Stripling’s staff anthropologist, Marina Faerman from Hebrew University, conducted the scientific study of the bones, which turned out to be seven women aged 17-25, and one male youth.

We were able to determine the sex, age, and health of the individuals,” Stripling said, using C-14 [carbon dating] tests conducted by Elisabetta Boaretto at the Weizmann Institute.

He said the dating matched up with finds of ceramics and coins or other metals found in the cave, placing the date of the murders to 69 CE. One of the coins found there was a shekel which was minted in the third year of the Great Revolt against the Romans in 69 CE.

A few hundred years and a meter of ash later, “the cave was reused in the Second Revolt, and the people at that time were unaware that there were human remains under their feet,” said Stripling.

It is possible that the men of the anonymous Jewish settlement in the area had gone off to fight while the women and child hid themselves in the caves. The evidence of Roman brutality is clear for Stripling.

Day 9 059In the first cave at the Khirbet el-Maqatir excavation, where five of the skeletons were discovered. (Steven Rudd)

The arrowheads were found in the same jumbled matrix as the skeletons. It should be noted that the skeletons were disarticulated. Perhaps wild animals tore them apart before the tumble and debris further damaged them,” he said. ...