In Te’omim Cave in the Jerusalem Hills of central Israel, excavations that took place between 2010 and 2016 recovered a huge collection of Roman oil lamps, weapons, pieces of pottery and actual human skulls hidden inside deep crevices. This strange assortment of artifacts has convinced a pair of Israeli archaeologists that an esoteric religious cult was active in the region between the second and fourth centuries AD, or in the Late Roman era. They believe cult members used Te’omim Cave to hold ritual ceremonies, some of which might have involved human sacrifices.
In a new article appearing in the Harvard Theological Review , archaeologists Eitan Klein from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and Boaz Zissu from Bar-Ilan University argue that the cave objects would all have been used for the purposes of necromancy. This practice was a common form of witchcraft or divination in the ancient world, and involved the use of skulls and other powerful objects to pierce the veil of death to let living humans commune with the dead.
Oil lamps and human skulls found in the cave were used for ancient magical practice and ritual acts according to study. (B. Zissu/ Te’omim Cave Archaeological Project )
Necromancers believed dead spirits were not bound by the usual laws of space and time, and so could provide them with valuable information about future events. These occult experts often sought out deep caves with dark inner chambers in which to practice their eerie craft.
“The Te’omim Cave in the Jerusalem hills has all the cultic and physical elements necessary to serve as a possible portal to the underworld,” Klein and Zissu wrote in their just-published article. “It is a subterranean space with a deep shaft at one end; a spring flows in the cave, and its waters are collected in a rock-cut pool; and there are traditions attributing powers of fertility and healing to the cave.”
Plan of the Te’omim Cave (B. Langford, M. Ullman/ Te’omim Cave Archaeological Project )
If cultic activity took place in Te’omim Cave, there would have been a special temple (an oracle) constructed inside dedicated to the cult’s mission of contacting the dead.
“These rites were usually conducted within tombs or burial caves, but sometimes they took place in a nekyomanteion (or nekromanteion) – an ‘oracle of the dead,’” the researchers said, explaining that a temple designated as a nekromanteion would usually be installed in a large natural cave and/or near a fresh water source.
Oracles of the dead are known to have existed in many locations in the Near East in the first millennium BC, and it seems they remained popular destinations well into the next millennium as well.
Communing with the Dead in Rome and the Ancient Necromancy Cults
The nekromanteion or oracle of the dead had its roots in Greek culture . In Homer’s Odyssey, which was written around 700 BC but described events that were said to have happened 500 years earlier, the poet claims that Odysseus entered the underworld by visiting one of these sacred temples. This is the earliest reference to an oracle of the dead in Greek literature, but it was far from the last.
The Romans were known for adopting Greek practices, and it seems they became aware of and interested in necromancy at some point. Laws were eventually passed making it illegal to practice such forms of witchcraft in the Roman Empire , but the activity remained common if illicit.
It has been said that several Roman emperors, including the infamous Nero, either practiced necromancy themselves or consulted with experts who did. These insecure rulers were obviously seeking to learn more about their future accomplishments and ultimate fates.
Based on the features and design of the oil lamps and weapons found in Te’omim Cave, which is located just west of the city of Jerusalem, the Israeli archaeologists have concluded these objects were manufactured sometime between the second and fourth centuries, or during the region’s Late Roman period.
The results of many excavations have revealed that the cave was apparently used frequently and for a long time for ritual divination, or necromancy.
Extricating an oil lamp from a crevice between boulders in L. 3064 (B. Zissu/ Te’omim Cave Archaeological Project )
“Some crevices contained groups of oil lamps mixed with weapons and pottery vessels from earlier periods or placed with human skulls,” the study authors wrote, noting that approximately 120 of these ancient Roman oil lamps have been recovered. The mixture of oil lamps and skulls was particularly revealing.
“The use of oil lamps for divination was extremely widespread in the classical periods,” they explained. “The prophetic force behind the lamp was believed to be a spirit or spirits, or in some cases even gods or demons. Divination by means of oil lamps was done by watching and interpreting the shapes created by the flame.”
As for the skulls, their connection to rituals designed to contact dead ancestors seems obvious. The study authors noted that “human skulls were used throughout the Roman Empire, including in Palestine and the vicinity, in necromancy ceremonies and communication with the dead.” This fact, plus the context within which the skulls at Te’omim Cave were discovered, makes it highly likely they were being used for such a purpose at this location.
Bronze weapons: an “eye axe” and two socketed spearheads, also found in the cave were used to fend off spirts during divination rituals. (Tal Rogovski/ Te’omim Cave Archaeological Project )
The weapons in the cave also fit the necromancy theory. Many historical sources state note that spirits were alleged to be frightened of metal, especially bronze and iron. Consequently, weapons made from these elements were often brought along by people visiting necromancy temples or oracles, in the belief that swords and other metal weapons would scare off any evil spirits that might appear.
Necromancers conjured up specific ancestors who were requested to show up to offer their insights on future events. But they were afraid other unholy creatures might try to sneak through the portals that were opened when necromancy rituals were performed, and so it was necessary to take precautions to prevent that from occurring.
An Archaeology of Magic
At the time the mysterious necromancy cult was active in the area around Jerusalem and Te’omim Cave, this region was populated mainly by non-Jewish people. Klein and Zissu believe the cult would have been organized by these individuals, but they acknowledge that the Jewish population in Roman era Palestine was known to have participated in necromancy ceremonies as well.
It seems that interest in necromancy was widespread in the Mediterranean region in ancient times. Archaeologists are learning more and more about such practices now, because of discoveries like those that have been made at Te’omim Cave, which the study authors refer to as an “outstanding test case worth examining within the developing discipline of the “archaeology of magic.” Divination and communion with the dead have a long history across the world, and they were part of the social and spiritual fabric of many of the world’s most well-known ancient cultures.
Top image: Entrance to Te’omim Cave, or Twins cave, near Jerusalem which has produced evidence of a necromancy cult. Source: Yair Aronshtam/ CC BY-SA 2.0
By Nathan Falde