The team, under the direction of the NOBTS Center for Archaeological Research, located a large open section in the cave at the eastern end of the ancient water system at Tel Gezer in Israel.
The discovery marks a major milestone in the seminary's three-year exploration at Gezer and sets the stage for future research. The breakthrough is valuable in understanding the cultural context in which the Bible was written.
The team still plans to locate the water source for the system and explore the entire cave, seeking a possible rear exit and pottery evidence to help date its construction in future digs.
The dig leaders believe the rock-hewn water tunnel was cut by the Canaanite occupants of Gezer between 2000 and 1800 B.C. -- around the time of Abraham. Other scholars date the system to the time of the Divided Kingdom after Solomon.
The site is mentioned numerous times in the Bible including in 1 Kings 9 when the city was given to Solomon by the Egyptian pharaoh. Solomon rebuilt and fortified the city with a massive wall and unique gate system.
The latest discovery could help archeologists date the Tel Gezer water system and understand how it works, which would offer valuable information to students of the Bible.
"Opening the cave is something we have been working toward for three summers wondering if it even existed," said Dan Warner, associate professor of archaeology and Old Testament at NOBTS and director of the Gezer Water System Expedition.
"It gave me a rush. Once inside it gave us a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, but we are not done by a long shot," Warner said.
A small dig team broke into the cavern at about 8 a.m. on June 12. What they found was a large, wedge shaped open area of the cave measuring 26 feet wide by 30 feet long and reaching a height of nearly seven feet at its highest point down to only a few inches at its lowest.
The surface inside is covered with a thin layer of cracked mud similar to what one would find in a dry pond or lake bed. The chamber also contains large boulders of chalk that have broken free from the cave roof. The roof, which slopes up at a 45-degree angle, seems relatively sound.
Though the cave was briefly opened by Irish archaeologist R.A.S. Macalister in 1908, he was unable to take a photograph due to condensation on his camera lens and poor lighting. The NOBTS team also encountered condensation on the camera lens at first, but after ventilating the area with a large fan the team was able to obtain the first photographs and videos of the cave's interior.
Macalister and French archaeologist Peré Vincent both looked at the cave and believed it was natural. The cave was only open a short time during the Macalister excavation before a torrential rain caused a retaining wall to collapse, sending all of Macalister's excavated dirt back down into the water system, where it blocked the cave.
The NOBTS team was the first to see the cavern in more than 100 years. Only a few people have ever seen the cavern in the past 3,800 years.
"This find verifies Macalister," Warner said. "Macalister was right. There is a cavern at the end of the water system."
Once inside, Warner and the other team leaders -- Jim Parker from NOBTS and Tsvika Tsuk, chief archaeologist for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority -- were able to confirm that the cave is indeed natural.
"It's a cave, not a carved space. It's a natural cave," said Parker, associate professor of biblical interpretation at NOBTS and the dig engineer.
Parker said the space is larger than Macalister described. Some of the differences in the dimensions may be attributed to the various roof collapses since Macalister explored the cave. The roof collapses have also opened more of the cave.
"We're able to see a part of the cave that Macalister never saw," Parker said. "This leaves the possibility that there is another entrance from another location off the tel." A tel is an archeological mound where past civilizations have built and abandoned structures.
"We did some sound tests to see if we could hear inside the cavern from outside on the tel," Parker said. "The sound was very clear, which leads us to believe that it leads to some sort of opening or fissure in the rock that in ancient days the water may have traveled outside the tel."
At the start of this dig season the team intended to open the entire mouth of the cave. However, the left side of the mouth was blocked with boulders and the rest of the cave was filled with silt and dirt. So the team continued a probe along the southern wall that they began in 2011.
About 26 feet into the probe, Warner and Parker made a crucial decision. With time running out on this year's dig, Warner and Parker wanted to expose more of the interior of the cave.
Instead of continuing along the southern wall of the cave, the team made a 20-degree left turn toward the middle of the cave. On June 10, the team cleared out 22 feet of dirt in the new angled probe. Parker ran new calculations and speculated that the team was near the northern wall of the cave.
The dig team took another left turn at a 70-degree angle and began digging in an effort to locate the wall. Less than an hour later they hit the northern side wall of the cave. From that point the team began excavating along the northern wall of the cave and ultimately entered the open space.
The discovery came just two days after visits by several high-ranking Israeli authorities. Reuven Pinsky, head of the Heritage Division in the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Shuka Dorfman, director-general of the Israeli Antiquities Authority, each toured the water system on June 10.
Dorfman, IAA Deputy Director Uzi Dahari and other IAA staffers toured the water system with Parker and Warner early June 10. Later the same day Pinsky visited the tunnel and cave. After hearing about the cave breakthrough, Dahari scheduled another tour for June 14.
Gary D. Myers is director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. For more information about the NOBTS Center for Archaeological Research, visit www.nobts.edu/ArchaeologyCenter or www.nobtsarchaeology.blogspot.com. A video about the discovery is available at www.youtube/-hGEJSfXlAM.
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