In 1961, a spectacular collection of objects dating from the Chalcolithic period (ca. 4000–3300 B.C.) was excavated in a cave in the Judaean Desert near the Dead Sea. Hidden in a natural crevice and wrapped in a straw mat, the hoard contained 442 different objects: 429 of copper, six of hematite, one of stone, five of hippopotamus ivory, and one of elephant ivory. Many of the copper objects in the hoard were made using the lost-wax process, the earliest known use of this complex technique. For tools, nearly pure copper of the kind found at the mines at Timna in the Sinai Peninsula was used. However, the more elaborate objects were made with a copper containing a high percentage of arsenic (4–12%), which is harder than pure copper and more easily cast.
Carbon-14 dating of the reed mat in which the objects were wrapped suggests that it dates to at least 3500 B.C. It was in this period that the use of copper became widespread throughout the Levant, attesting to considerable technological developments that parallel major social advances in the region. Farmers in Israel and Jordan began to cultivate olives and dates, and herders began to use milk products from domesticated animals. Specialized artisans, sponsored by an emerging elite, produced exquisite wall paintings, terracotta figurines and ossuaries, finely carved ivories, and basalt bowls and sculpture.
The objects in the Nahal Mishmar hoard appear to have been hurriedly collected. It has been suggested that the hoard was the sacred treasure belonging to a shrine at Ein Gedi, some 12 kilometers away. Set in an isolated region overlooking the Dead Sea, the Ein Gedi shrine consists of a large mud-brick walled enclosure with a gatehouse. Across from the gatehouse is the main structure, a long narrow room entered through a doorway in the long wall. In the center of the room and on either side of the doorway are long narrow benches. Opposite the door is a semi-circular structure on which a round stone pedestal stood, perhaps to support a sacred object. The contents of the shrine were hidden in the cave at Nahal Mishmar, perhaps during a time of emergency. The nature and purpose of the hoard remains a mystery, although the objects may have functioned in public ceremonies.