Discovering the Cave of John the Baptist
The Suba cave must be the most unusual archaeological site that I have ever excavated. During many years spent digging in Israel/Palestine I have been party to the recovery of a wide variety of ancient vestiges, from city walls and opulent town houses to burial caves and industrial installations, but none of this prepared me for the appearance of the strange remains in this cave. There were so many anomalies in the archaeological record that trying to puzzle it all out gave me numerous sleepless nights. Finding the cave in the first place was an incredible stroke of luck. Luck is an important feature of archaeological work: some archaeologists have a nose for important discoveries and possess the instincts of bloodhounds, others are not so lucky, however hard they might persevere in the search for the discovery of a lifetime. Some important discoveries simply fall into the lap of those who are least expecting it. Before I say something about the circumstances of the discovery of the cave and the story of how we went about excavating it, I should first explain where the cave is located, to set the scene. The cave is in the hills immediately west of Jerusalem, about ten minutes' drive by car from the modern outskirts of the city. Forging their way between the undulating hills are narrow valleys, almost V-shaped in profile, with the flanking slopes covered with trees or agricultural terraces that were built in serried fashion (plate 1a). The countryside round about was originally cultivated with Mediterranean-type crops: vineyards and olive groves, orchards of fruit trees, and some grain crops in the valleys. The valleys are dry watercourses (wadis) running from east to west and one only sees water flowing in them when there is a substantial fall of rainfall during the winter months (averaging around 600 mm per year). The cave is located at the bottom of a hill slope on the northern side of one of these valleys, referred to on the local maps by its Arabic names, Wadi esh-Shemmarin and Wadi Ismail (or today in Hebrew, as Nahal Tzova). Ancient roads were once visible leading to the wadi and cave from the direction of Ain Karim and Sataf in the south-east, and from the direction of Suba in the north-east. These roads were only for local use, mostly for villagers and farmers transporting their agricultural produce. The closest main highways in ancient times, the one leading from Jaffa to Jerusalem and the one from Gaza to Jerusalem, were located a couple of kilometres away to the north and south of the cave, respectively. One thing is certain: the cave was not established at this location because of any proximity to a main road.
The cave is located about a kilometre away from the ancient settlement of Suba on top of a hill, a good fifteen-minute walk away but close enough to postulate a connection between the two. The valley (Wadi esh-Shemmarin) in which the cave is situated is quite narrow and it narrows even further - almost to a bottleneck - in the immediate vicinity of the cave. The appearance of the valley floor - now occupied by the kibbutz orchards - has changed substantially, and so it was fascinating looking at aerial photographs dating back to the early part of the twentieth century. These show ancient terraces built at regular intervals along the length of the valley, with a fenced path running parallel to it, along the southern edge. But, at the point next to the cave, a massive barrier wall once existed - crossing the valley like the wall of a dam - and it was here, just below the wall (and protected by it), that the path crossed over to the opposite side of the valley. Passing next to the entrance to the cave, the path resumed a westerly direction, eventually climbing at an oblique angle up the northern slope. Nothing of this path or of the barrier wall has survived the major changes made to the valley floor when the first orchards were planted there in the 1950s.
I saw the cave for the first time in November 1999 when doing an archaeological survey of the environs of Suba in the countryside round about Kibbutz Tzova (a collective Israeli settlement), located not too far from the village of Ain Karim. I was in the dining hall of Kibbutz Tzova one morning having breakfast when one of the members, Reuven Kalifon, a dedicated archaeological buff, approached me and enquired whether I had visited the large plastered cave whose opening was just visible under dense vegetation on one side of the narrow valley to the south of the kibbutz. I hadn't and was immediately intrigued. Later, I tentatively drove along a track leading down the side of this valley and, together with a volunteer, Arthur, who was there to help me take measurements, I made my way inside the cave by scrambling past thorny bushes into the black hole of the entrance (plate 1b). My eyes slowly became accustomed to the darkness within and it became possible to make out the general shape of the cave. It was much larger than I had thought it would be, and it was elongated like a long hall (plate 2a). Using a tape measure we found that it had a length of about 24 metres and a width of 3.5 metres. I crawled up to the side wall on the left, dragging the tape measure in one hand and holding a drawing board with the other. It was at this point that I became aware of a set of drawings incised into the wall of the cave, hidden behind piled-up boulders. There were also drawings on the opposite wall of the cave. One of the drawings was that of a figure of a man that looked like it could be John the Baptist (plate 2b). It reminded me of representations of John the Baptist that I had seen in early Byzantine art. There were also drawings of a hand or arm, a head, crosses and other symbols. It was all very exciting. At first glance the style of the drawings seemed to indicate that they were of Byzantine-to-Early Islamic-period date (made between the fourth to eleventh centuries), but I was still uncertain about this at that time. Perhaps, I thought, this cave might have been connected in some way with the local Byzantine traditions of John the Baptist having spent his childhood in the wilderness (cf. Luke 1:80), and the fact that this place was situated not too far away from John's traditional birthplace at Ain Karim (with the nativity stories there going back to at least the sixth century) was also quite suggestive. Clearly, the cave needed proper archaeological excavation. There were undoubtedly mysteries here that needed to be solved by digging.
I had spent many months in the countryside of Suba investigating a variety of ancient features, but the Cave of John the Baptist was not like anything I had encountered before, it seemed to be unique. All I had been expecting to find on that chilly morning in November 1999 was a simple water container and nothing more. Up to that point I had crawled about in quite a few caves scattered around Suba, among them water cisterns and burial caves (Iron Age and Roman), but none of these was special in any way. The new cave was not only unusually large, it also had very thick plastered walls, which was not common. In the late 1980s a British archaeological team led by Richard Harper and Denys Pringle conducted excavations at nearby Suba, revealing the remains of a twelfth-century Crusader castle (named Belmont in the sources) within the ruins of an Ottoman village abandoned in 1948, at the time of the establishing of the State of Israel. The massive walls of its fortifications, with a sloping revetment and the arched doorways of some of its buildings, are most impressive. Since they did not investigate the surrounding countryside, I thought that it might be an interesting project of landscape archaeology to have a look at the ancient agricultural field systems around Suba and the water-management systems connected with the ancient spring situated further down towards the foot of the hill. I was hoping that the new findings might in some way help to illuminate the important discoveries made by the original British team working at the Crusader fortress. So, together with Professor Shimon Dar, of the Bar Ilan University, we began investigating the spring of Ain Suba and its environs, a nearby reservoir (filled almost to its brim with mud), and an extensive system of agricultural terraces extending down the slopes of the hill in every direction. The lands of Suba belong to Kibbutz Tzova and so we were lucky to have their full cooperation in regard to our exploratory pursuits. One of their members, Ya'aqov Ha-Tsubai, even took us to see the prime archaeological sites that he knew of in the area round about the kibbutz. Much of the survey work entailed briskly walking around in the fields and terraces, looking at rock-cut installations, climbing walls and embankments, crawling into holes in the ground, and picking up broken bits of ancient pottery. One of the team members, Jo Clarke, kindly supplied us every Friday with lumps of Danish blue cheese and bottles of white wine, which helped keep us focused and gave us a sense of satisfaction, even when the work was proceeding slowly and nothing much was being found.
John the Baptist is one of the most intriguing of the characters in the Gospels and I had always wondered whether some evidence confirming the substance of his early childhood and early baptism procedures might some day turn up in an archaeological excavation. The discovery of the cave at Suba therefore raised all sorts of questions relating to the antiquity of the traditions connecting John the Baptist to the Ain Karim region west of Jerusalem. On the day of the discovery of the cave the first thing I did was to go through my library to find my copy of a book written by D. Baldi and B. Bagatti, entitled Saint Jean-Baptist: Dans Les Souvenirs de sa Patrie, to see what they had to say about these traditions. The general consensus of opinion among scholars I found was that there was a degree of uncertainty about how ancient these traditions might be. Hence, it seemed to me to be quite fortuitous that the cave I had chanced upon seemed to be connected to the cult of John the Baptist (if, of course, my initial interpretation of the drawings was correct). The answers, I felt, lay in the depths of soil inside the cave. But should I be the one to excavate the cave, I asked myself. I had to think things over very carefully. Dedicating oneself to the task of excavating a given archaeological site is always a serious undertaking and one has always to be absolutely sure that there is a scientific justification for such work before beginning digging. I wasn't quite sure that I wanted the responsibility. Also, from past experience, I knew that one cannot predict what one will find and some excavations drag on for many years and even decades. Did I really want to get involved in a long-term project digging at the Cave of John the Baptist? I now pondered long and hard but finally, I decided that not only was the excavation worthwhile scientifically, it was also a personal opportunity not to be missed. I now needed to begin raising funds for the dig, to gather together a professional team to undertake the digging and to get the official permits sorted out.
I flew back to my home in London and began seeking financial sponsorship for the excavation at the cave. Archaeological excavations are extremely expensive and all too frequently one has to get one's begging cap out and hope that some benefactor will materialise and offer to cover the costs. Eventually, I spoke by telephone to Joseph Peeples of the Jerusalem Historical Society in Texas, who became very excited about the ancient drawings and the potential that there was in the cave for excavation. Joe was an avuncular sort of person, with a winning sense of humour and enthusiasm. We began making plans and Joe then set out to raise the funds to enable us to conduct at least one season of excavations at the cave. It was at this point that he suggested that a friend of his, Professor James Tabor, might like to join the proposed project as Associate Director, and that his university, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, might perhaps serve as the overall academic sponsor of the project. Several telephone conversations later and everything had been sorted out and we were all set to begin the work. When I flew back to Jerusalem a month later, I had high hopes for the success of the planned excavation and in an optimistic vein I felt that within a relatively short period of digging we would surely be able to clarify the entire history of the cave and the exact date of the drawings on its walls as well. Little did I know then that it would actually take much longer - almost three years in fact - to obtain all of the answers we were seeking to the many questions that kept buzzing around inside our heads.
From the outset I kept a diary recording the progress of the excavations. It was totally distinct from the type of official record usually kept by archaeologists on excavations, such as stratigraphical field registrars (for the recording of loci and baskets) with measurements and sketch plans, and logbooks of one sort or another. The idea behind writing these progress reports was that it meant I was able to keep friends and sponsors informed by e-mail about what was happening on the dig, almost on a daily basis. Many of these reports were written upon returning from the dig and sometimes even before I had had time to shower or rest, and so they naturally possess a raw edge and a sense of immediacy. Three years on and it is still fun reading through these reports - one gets that immediate rush as if one is participating all over again in the trials and tribulations of the project and in the minutiae of the day-to-day digging. They also remind me of the many people who were associated with the dig; I am so grateful to the many hundreds of amazing volunteers who came on the dig, got excited and worked extremely hard, contributing not only their physical labour but also their hearts and minds. The great thing these reports convey is the exhilaration and passion that we all felt as the dig proceeded, with every new day shedding further light on the mystery of the Cave of John the Baptist.
We were now ready to dig. The tools had largely been bought, the archaeological staff had been organised and the official permit to dig at the site had been applied for. I couldn't wait to begin working at the cave.