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My Search for a Treasure (2007)


This report was quoted in a Jerusalem post article in November 2011 “The Hasmoneans’ forgotten castle“. Thank you Seth for the free PR 🙂

Trembling I took the “Kongo”, the electric drilling machine, and started probing into the debris.

Is it possible that in my shift we will reveal the entrance to the chamber where the temple treasures are hidden?

In theory it is possible. We are after all drilling, in the right spot, in theory.

Yaakov Kalman (with white head cover) holds the light, thus directing the worker where to operate the drilling machine in order to continue exposing the mystery tunnel under Hyrkania.

Yaakov Kalman (with white head cover) holds the light, thus directing the worker where to operate the drilling machine in order to continue exposing the mystery tunnel under Hyrkania. After taking the photo in turns I operated the drilling machine too.

I drilled and drilled, then cleared the debris into buckets, which were taken out of the tunnel by a winch operated by a generator.

We were in a remote place in the middle of the Judean Desert, at the bottom of a dry riverbed, below a hill atop which was the ancient fortress of Hyrkania. Located between Bethlehem and the Dead Sea, the fortress on the summit of the hill was probably built by order of John Hyrcanus, the Hasmonean king (134-104 BCE) under whose rule the independent Jewish state reached its height. Excavations at the summit have uncovered the remains of buildings, including an Herodian water system, a 5th century CE monastery, and several Aramaic and Greek papyrus documents.

But who dug this tunnel under the summit?, and when?, and why??

There could be many answers, but none were simple or clear. The tunnel angles down at 40 degrees into the ground. It is high enough to comfortably stand upright while steps facilitate walking. The tunnel did not follow any geological layer and the original workmen were not trying to locate any copper veins in the bedrock. Maybe it was meant to reach water, but if so, why not dig a simple shaft? Wells are a common way to reach water in Israel. Maybe it was meant to catch occasional floodwaters in the dry riverbed. If so, it was not placed in the best part of the canyon and there are no traces of a dam to divert the water into the tunnel. And the tunnel was not plastered, as are most water reservoirs.

So what was the purpose of this tunnel? Located in a remote and inaccessible area of the Judean desert, between bends of a steep, dry riverbed, the tunnel seems ideal for a place to hide something. But what? This is what fired my imagination.

The Copper Scroll

More then 50 years ago archaeologists excavating in the caves around khirbet Qumran found the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. Among the many scrolls they found one that was especially intriguing. It was made of copper, not parchment or papyrus. The action of writing on it would have been more like chiseling, but the result is an engraved text that will last longer than ink on a scroll. And the contents of the copper scroll is so intriguing. The scroll lists more than 60 sites, each containing a hoard of silver or gold vessels, some of them apparently temple utensils.

The identity of the author of the scroll is unknown, as is the date when it was written. Since its discovery, the copper scroll fascinated generations of archaeologists (including me), and treasure hunters.

Most scholars agree the scroll was created about 2000 years ago, probably about the time of the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem (70 CE). What scholars cannot agree upon is the nature of the scroll. Is it describing real treasures hidden in various sites? Or is it a legendary list created by one of the Essene dwellers ofQumran? Many of the Dead Sea Scrolls depict futuristic topics, such as the battles between “the sons of light” and “the sons of darkness”, or the way the temple will look and operate at the end of days. Could this too be an apocalyptic scroll?. It took great care to create the Copper Scroll. The material is rare and expensive and inscribing it took much more effort than writing with ink on parchment or papyrus. Would anyone go to that much effort just to create a fictitious list of treasures? It seems unlikely, at least to me.

So if the list is factual, where are the treasures that are listed in the scroll? The main problem is that the scroll lists burial sites, but their locations are not clear. For instance treasure #2 is at the “Tomb, by the third step”. Which tomb? Where is it? The scroll does not say. Treasure #24 is said to be at the “ditch of Sholomo’s, near the big boulder.” The modern treasure hunter is left guessing.

The bottom line is that to this day no body found even a small fragment of a treasure that could be linked to this scroll. Some suggest that the temple priests listed the sites where they intended to bury the temple treasures, but that the Romans confiscated the treasures before the priests concealed them. Others argue that the treasures were hidden but we simply have not found them yet. Perhaps the tunnel under Hyrkania will reveal the first hoard?.

The very first concealed treasure described in the copper scroll reads:

In the ruin which is in the valley of achor, under the steps leading to the east, forty cubits long: a chest of silver and its vessels, with a weight of seventeen talents, KEN.

Could it be describing the tunnel under Hyrkania? This option cannot be ignored.

But things are not so easy. For one, it is not the only tunnel in this area. It is one of three tunnels around Hyrkania. And this is not the first attempt to retrieve treasures from these tunnels. At least one archaeologist tried excavating it in the 1960’s, but beyond a certain depth the clearing of the debris became a major technical problem, and so he never reached the bottom of it.

Oren Gutfeld, a colleague and friend of mine, is in charge of the renewed excavations at the site. He was approached by an American who had been digging at the site illegally for a while and then decided to do it the right way. The dig is now being carried out by archaeologists from the Hebrew University and is sponsored by the Rothschild Foundation.

Digging the moist and hard debris requires drilling machines. Clearing the debris and hauling it up the steep tunnel also requires a machine to transport the buckets. And below a certain depth, breathing is impossible without oxygen.

Along the shaft

Along the shaft.

The funding enabled Oren to arrange a jeep to reach the site and install an electric generator that provided power for the drilling machine, a machine to transport the buckets and another to pump air into the tunnel.

So far he dug in 40 metres. Who knows how deep the tunnel is? And how will it end? It may terminate in a dead end or it may contain a water pool. It may even end in an intact royal tomb  – or a sealed hoard of the temple treasures! That is the excitement of archaeology.

At the end of the day I joined the dig, we cleared about 2 meters of dirt, but the end of the tunnel was still not known. I did not find any treasures. In fact we found nothing on that day.

But I do promise to keep you posted if and when finds surface!