Press Release: August 2005
Archaeologists this week completed eight weeks of digging at a cave close to Kibbutz Tzuba near Jerusalem, revealing a monumental rock-hewn water system dating back to the time of King Hezekiah, from the eighth century B.C. Last year the site received world-wide attention with the discovery of a cave said to have been used by John the Baptist and his followers for baptism purposes and cultic rituals. Archaeologists say that the new discoveries at the site shed light on the reason why a group of baptizers would have chosen this cave, out of the many thousands existing in the hills of Judah west of Jerusalem, as the scene of their activities.
The archaeological work at this site is being undertaken by a team led by Dr Shimon Gibson and Professor James Tabor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in the USA, and with the sponsorship of Kibbutz Tzuba and the Foundation for Biblical Archaeology. “This is one of the most exciting sites I have excavated during my entire archaeological career”’, said Gibson this week. “Not only do we have a cave that appears to have been used by a party of baptizers in the first century A.D., but it would appear that it was chosen for three reasons: for its seclusion, size and antiquity. What baptizers wanted was a place, distant from nearby villages, large enough to contain groups of people coming to be immersed, and ancient enough so that the cultic side of the rituals was put into a context linking them to the time of the Israelite prophets.” The cave associated with John the Baptist was found not far from the village of Ain Kerem, which is regarded as the traditional birthplace of John the Baptist.
The recent excavations have shown that the cave where the baptisms took place was part of a much larger Iron Age water system, rock-cut in places to a depth of some twenty metres (65 feet). It was a monumental enterprise with a vertical shaft, an open horizontal corridor, a flight of stone steps above a tunnel, and three external plastered pools, all of which was on the slope above an underground reservoir. “Excavating this water system was a bit of a nightmare”, said Gibson. “It meant excavating on a steep slope, clearing away large quantities of rubble and soil, and digging through a maze of rock-cut cavities. But we succeeded in the end and the results are amazing.” Pottery finds from the site show that the entire water system was built in the eighth century B.C. at the time of King Hezekiah, at the same time as the hewing of the famous Siloam Tunnel in Jerusalem, which was not too long before the siege of Jerusalem in 701 B.C. by Sennacherib at the head of an Assyrian army. “Similar monumental water systems”, Gibson pointed out, “have been found elsewhere, but hitherto only within Israelite cities, such as at Beth Shemesh and Gibeon. Never before has such a massive water system been found isolated in the countryside without any town or city attached to it.” Such a massive enterprise, archaeologists deduce, could only have been a project undertaken by the kingdom of Judah, and it must have been used by the inhabitants of the nearby biblical town of Suba. The dig showed that the water system fell into disuse in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., although the reservoir-cave below was still being used for its water. During the Persian and Hellenistic periods the cave was still partially being used, but was eventually completely abandoned in the second century B.C.
One hundred years after the cave was abandoned, it was reused by a group of people who practiced cultic rituals in the front portion of the cave and who immersed themselves in water at the back of the cave. These rituals were kept up at the cave from the time of John the Baptist himself and until the second century AD. There was also evidence that the baptizers anointed feet with oil in a stone installation. Eventually, the cave was adapted by Byzantine monks – probably from nearby Ain Karim - to celebrate the memory of John the Baptist, carving an amazing series of large drawings into the walls of the cave, depicting the figure of John the Baptist, his decapitated head, his relic arm, crosses and other symbols. The cave was eventually abandoned with the coming of the Crusaders and the local Christians apparently fled for their lives. “Although the Crusaders were a brutal lot”, says Gibson, “with local Christians fleeing for their lives, side-by-side with Jews and Moslems, the fear of the Crusaders brought about a set of circumstances which meant that the location of the cave was totally forgotten and this allowed for the absolute preservation of this unusual site for the benefit of future generations.” The cave was found by chance during an excursion in 1999. Gibson added that “the new excavations have provided us with a mysterious monumental water system from the time of King Hezekiah. The cave below the water system was subsequently used at the time of John the Baptist for special cultic immersion activities, from the early first century A.D. onwards. Later, in the Byzantine period, in the fifth century A.D., this same cave was used by Christian monks to sanctify the memory of John the Baptist.”