Numerous caves pit the cliffs and mountains of Palestine. Such caves provided housing and burial sites for prehistoric people. Although occupation was not continuous, evidence for human habitation in some of the caves exists up until the Roman period. At this time, they became places of refuge for Jews fleeing Roman persecution.
In the Bible, caves were often used as burial places. Abraham brought the cave of Machpelah as a tomb for Sarah (Genesis 23:11-16,Genesis 23:19). Lazarus was buried in a cave (John 11:38). David used the cave of Adullam for refuge (1 Samuel 22:1), as did five Canaanite kings at Makkedah (Joshua 10:16).
Prehistoric Occupation On the western slope of Mt. Carmel in the north, four caves carved out of the limestone have been excavated. Known as the Valley of the Caves, the site was occupied by prehistoric people. Faunal and geological remains have produced valuable information on Stone Age dating and climate. In addition, human skeletons, both Neanderthal and a type not far removed from homo sapiens, have contributed information about the development of early man. Other prehistoric cave sites on Mt. Carmel have been excavated.
Eight caves on the eastern slopes of the Judean hills southeast of Bethlehem show a long period of prehistoric occupation. The chronological structure established here, when compared with that fixed at the Carmel caves, provides a reliable list of dates for Palestinian prehistory. As at Carmel, skeletal, floral, and faunal remains, as well as tools and other instruments, were recovered and studied. The results of these studies have made it possible to date with reasonable accuracy the various cultures represented by these artifacts.
Later Occupation The hills of the Judean wilderness end abruptly at the western shore of the Dead Sea in a series of cliffs rent at intervals by wadies, or stream beds. Caves in these cliffs, from Qumran in the north to Masada approximately thirty miles south, have been investigated by archaeologists. Occupation in some cases extended irregularly from about 4000 B.C. to the Bar Kochba revolt (A.D. 132-135). A plastered pool plus a wide variety of foods and equipment found at the sites are evidence that Jewish insurgents, the followers of Bar Kochba, prepared these caves as eventual hideouts in the event of Roman siege.
In addition to artifacts from earlier periods, important finds include the personal and legal documents of a Jewish woman, Babata, which shed light on the culture of that day. Other administrative documents and letters pertaining to Bar Kochba's government, as well as a large hoard of copper utensils, are just a few of the valuable discoveries found in the caves south of En-gedi. Similar materials were recovered at Wadi Murabba'at. However, the manuscripts stored in the dry environment of the eleven caves at Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls) are the most important discovery of this century. See Bible, Texts and Versions; Dead Sea Scrolls.