Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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The mystery of a curse inscribed on the mosaic floor of an ancient synagogue at Ein Gedi on the shores of the Dead Sea may have been resolved. The 4th-century A.D. mosaic, uncovered 25 years ago, bears a curse in Aramaic against anyone revealing the "secret of the town to the gentiles." Scholars had speculated that the curse might relate to the town's production of balsam. Sap from the balsam tree was used as a healing agent, but it was also a highly prized perfume whose production enriched the coffers of the rulers of Judea and later of Rome. Ein Gedi and two other sites in the Dead Sea area were apparently the only centers of balsam growing.

In his first season at Ein Gedi, Hebrew University archaeologist Yizhar Hirschfeld excavated the remains of a two-story stone tower adjacent to ancient agricultural terraces, presumably connected with the production of balsam. A steeply sloping glacis (or incline) shielded a wooden entrance to the tower that could be blocked by a heavy wheel-like stone that was rolled back and forth on a dirt track. A six-foot-high reservoir built against a rear wall is where balsam was produced, says Hirschfeld, who believes that balsam tree leaves and bark were brought to the tower from the surrounding terraces and cooked in a small forecourt where remains of a furnace and large amounts of ash have been found. Hirschfeld suspects that the cooked balsam was then put in a reservoir abutting the tower's rear wall, where it was mixed with water. He says the balsam essence then flowed from this reservoir through a hole in the wall directly into the basin in the building's interior.