Archaeologists search for historical clues in ancient Israeli hideout

The Indiana Jones-like luster of archaeology is tarnished somewhat by the laughing testimony of an aged scientist in NOVA’s “Ancient Refuge in the Holy Land.”

In the science program airing Nov. 23 on PBS, the digger recounts the time he realized he was rifling through a 2,000-year-old latrine.

But, faster than you can say “It belongs in a museum!” — the metal detector went off, and the team uncovered a trove of breathtaking bronze bowls unceremoniously hidden in the commode.

“What did the scientist find in the toilet?” sounds more like a setup for a bad joke than the premise for an hourlong show in PBS. But Professor Richard Freund, also a rabbi, makes a fascinating (and telegenic) claim: Are these bowls Roman relics from the first century? Or as Freund believes, are they treasures rescued from the Second Temple of Jerusalem prior to its destruction in 70 CE?

The site Freund and his team set to work in seems ripped from the big screen. Located in a nearly inaccessible corner of the Negev, the “Cave of the Letters” housed a number of Jewish refugees during Shimon Bar Kokhba’s disastrous rebellion against the Romans in 132.

Originally excavated in the 1960 by legendary Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin, the cave earned its nickname via the discovery of a cache of letters penned by Bar Kokhba himself.

NOVA makes sure to wow us with some of the technology Freund is putting to work, including radar and electrical devices that create underground maps Yadin could only have dreamed of 40 years ago. There’s also a tiny camera on a snaking tube that Freund lets slip he conceived of using during a colonoscopy.

What’s more, NOVA’s deft use of 3-D graphics to diagram the 300-yard-long cave is nearly as impressive as the frequent, swirling camera shots of the cliffside labyrinth.

Viewers are also treated to the ball of energy that is Freund, a short, mustachioed man resembling Rick Moranis with a high-pitched, nasal New York accent. The show’s best moments feature archaeologists being interviewed while Freund argues his points in the background.

But, as the show hits the 40-minute-mark, it becomes clear that he is not going to unearth the Ark of the Covenant. Instead, Freund focuses on proving the wonders unearthed in the commode aren’t stolen Roman objects but rescued items from the Second Temple.

Freund believes the Cave of the Letters is the “Cave of the Column of two openings” mentioned in the “Copper Scroll,” a metallic list of all the treasure Jews saved from the marauding Romans.

According to the Copper Scroll, the bronze treasures should have been buried at 3 cubits deep. They were.

So far, so good. But, in the eyes of his fellow biblical archaeologists, Freund does not nail his hypothesis (which treats us to more scenes of him arguing).

Some viewers may be perturbed by this lack of denouement. But, on the other hand, even the 44-year-old footage of Yadin’s original excavation is fascinating; they don’t teach you about the Cave of the Letters in school, after all.

“Ancient Refuge in the Holy Land” will air 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 23 on PBS. Information:

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.