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Archaeologists Open Burial Cave Sealed Since The Time Of Rameses The Great

A cave sealed since the time of Egypt’s most powerful pharaoh has been found by accident in an Israeli national park, with relics intact.


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer

Some faded and broken ceramic jars inside a dark burial tomb
We know where some of these jars are from, but not how they were used or who put them here. Image credit: Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority

Evidence for the proposition you can’t dig a hole in the Middle East without hitting a historical artifact has come from Palmahim Beach National Park in Israel. In this case, however, a mechanical digger has revealed considerably more than one piece of antiquity after it hit a rock. The operators realized their digger had opened the roof of an entire cave filled with items of archaeological interest. On exploration by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), the space was found to have been sealed for 3,300 years, since the reign of Rameses II, but have no apparent concerns about changing that.

Rameses II, often referred to as Rameses the Great, ruled over an empire that extended far beyond the Nile, including up the Mediterranean coast and taking in what is now Gaza, Israel, Lebanon, and parts of Syria. Somewhere during that occupation, it seems some of his subjects supported the roof of a cave around 12 kilometers (7 miles) south of what is now Tel Aviv with a central pillar and entombed some bronze artifacts. The items remained undisturbed over thousands of years as control of the location shifted countless times.


“This is a once-in-a-lifetime discovery! It is extremely rare to come across an ‘Indiana Jones film set”—a cave floor laid out with vessels untouched for 3,300 years, since the Late Bronze Age,” said Dr Eli Yannai of the IAA in a statement sent to IFLScience.

“The fact that the cave was sealed, and not looted in later periods, will allow us to employ the modern scientific methods available today, to retrieve much information from the artifacts and from the residues extant on the vessels, for example, organic remains that are not visible to the naked eye,” Yannai added. “The cave may furnish a complete picture of the Late Bronze Age funerary customs. The cave predominantly contains tens of pottery vessels of different forms and sizes, including deep and shallow bowls, some red-painted, footed chalices, cooking pots, storage jars, and lamps for lighting.”

The discovery is too new for the items to have been properly examined, but Yannai has identified some as having come from further north along the coastline, with others being products of Cyprus. Rameses II may have been so oppressive to his subjects that he is considered a candidate for the Biblical Pharoah on whom the ten plagues were inflicted, but the stability of his reign facilitated trade. Indeed, one of Rameses’ greatest victories was over pirates preying on Mediterranean shipping.

There is a twist to this tale, however. Having survived three millennia without being robbed, some items from the cave were snatched between its discovery and the IAA conducting its assessment. This is despite the fact the site was guarded the whole time. IAA officials are very keen to get the items back, and the consequences of theft of antiquities in Israel are severe, even if you're not worried about ancient curses that have been building power all this time.

An archaeologist in ahard hat kneels on the floor of a dark burial chamber surrounded by ceramic jars
The first people in the burial chamber for 3,300 years. Image credit: Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority

IAA Director Eli Eskosido said: “The news of the discovery of the cave spread like wildfire in the academic world, and we have already received requests from many scholars to take part in the planned archaeological excavation.”

Palmahim Park already hosts an archaeology trail, but while some sites in the park date back two centuries further than the latest find, most are from the period when it was a Muslim fortress against Crusader campaigns.

Why the digger was operating in a National Park has not been disclosed.


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