The tell-tale conservation of two 2,000 year old leather water skins

Irit Lev Beyth, Hadas Seri, Liatte Dotan, and Jessica Lewinsky


In the early sixties, archaeologist Yigael Yadin excavated the “Cave of Letters,” located near the Dead Sea in the Judean Desert, Israel. The cave probably served as a hideout during the second Jewish revolt against the Romans in 132 CE. Among many rare finds were several vegetable tanned leather water-skins, two of them in nearly complete form. While water-skins were originally created to contain liquids, the content of one of these excavated water-skins was different. It included: unspun wool skeins, jewelry, clothing, small glass vessels, wooden cosmetics utensils, and spindle whorls, indicating a secondary use of the water-skin as a satchel. The most historically significant items in the water-skin were a packet of letters written by Shimon Bar Kokhba himself, the leader of the rebellion, to his subordinates in hiding – hence the name “Cave of Letters.”

The dry, stable conditions in the cave resulted in the leather’s fine state of preservation. Details such as historical repairs, in the form of sewn patches, could clearly be recognized in several places on the water-skin, and its opening end was still tied with an original rope. The water-skins, which are under the jurisdiction of the Israel Antiquities Authority, are part of the archaeological collection of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and are on display. Prior to their arrival at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the water-skins were treated, probably in the mid 1960s. Although no treatment records exist, black and white photographs from the excavation revealed that this initial treatment included cleaning, reshaping and inserting an inner support of a thick, cream colored fabric stuffed with hay. Nylon filament was used to hold down leather pieces which were folded over. In 1998, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem’s Metal and Organic Materials Conservation Department was asked to assess the condition of the two treated water-skins. The evaluation concluded that while the leather was in exceptional state for its age, the 1960s materials used in the treatment were not of conservation grade, and the aesthetics of the objects were not pleasing. It was therefore decided that one of the water-skins would be retreated. In 2017, fifty years after its initial treatment, and twenty years after the retreatment of its “twin,” the second water-skin was retreated.

Over the span of 55 years, three different teams of well-meaning professionals tended to these invaluable treasures. Each team, with their knowledge and available materials, used these to their best abilities. This presentation aims to reveal, compare, and evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of each treatment within the perspective of time.


2018 | Houston | Volume 25