Few academic disputes are fiercer than among biblical archaeologists, and "Ancient Refuge in the Holy Land" is bound to raise the tone of the arguments by a few more octaves.
The hour-long NOVA documentary, airing on PBS station KCET on Nov. 23 at 8 p.m., follows an expedition to a remote cave in Israel's Judean Desert, initially excavated by famed soldier and archaeologist Yigael Yadin in 1960.
In the so-called Cave of Letters, west of the Dead Sea, Yadin found skulls, artifacts, documents and, most startling, letters from Shimon Bar Kokhba, leader of the revolt against the Romans from 132-135 C.E.
It takes a certain chutzpah to presume that the iconic Yadin may have overlooked and misinterpreted some of the evidence, but historian Richard Freund, director of the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford (Conn.) is a man not easily intimidated.
Gathering experts from 10 other universities and the latest equipment, Freund set out in 1999 for another dig at the cave.
Freund thought that the Yadin expedition had not penetrated through the thick layers of debris covering the cave floor to a depth of 15 feet, or explored all three chambers of the cave complex, cutting 300 yards into the cliff's side.
Using technology not available to Yadin, Freund found new artifacts and bones.
He believes they indicated that the cave had been used as a refuge before Bar Kokhba, probably by Jews fleeing after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.
But his most controversial conclusion centers on the ritual bronze vessels, decorated with a sea goddess and other Roman mythological figures, which Yadin had discovered in 1960.
Yadin believed that the vessels had been stolen from the Romans, but Freund believes that the artifacts were in actual use in the Temple in Jerusalem, and may be its only surviving items.
Freund's conclusions point to an intermingling of Roman and Jewish cultures, even in Judaism's holiest site, but the very idea appalls most biblical scholars.
"I cannot believe that the priests allowed Roman mythological figures on Jewish religious objects," protests Dead Sea Scrolls expert Lawrence Schiffman of New York University, adding that the political, as well as archaeological, implications of the dispute help account for its intensity.For more information on the program, visit www.pbs.org/nova/holyland.