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Archaeologists said Monday they have excavated a cave where John the Baptist baptized many of his followers — basing their theory on tens of thousands of shards from small ritual jugs, a stone used for foot cleansing and wall carvings that tell the story of the contemporary of Jesus.

Only few artifacts linked to New Testament figures have ever been found in the Holy Land, and the cave is potentially a major discovery in biblical archaeology.

John the Baptist, who was just a figure from the Gospels, now comes to life,” British archaeologist Shimon Gibson said during an exclusive tour of the cave given to The Associated Press.

Some scholars said that short of an inscription with John’s name in the cave, there could never be conclusive proof of his presence there, and that Gibson’s finds are still too incomplete to support his contentions.

John, six months older than Jesus and a distant relative — their mothers were kin, according to the Bible — was a fiery preacher with a message of repentance and a considerable following. Tradition says he was born in the village of Ein Kerem, today part of Jerusalem. Just 2.5 miles (four kilometers) away, on the land of Kibbutz Tzuba, a communal farm, the cave lies hidden in a limestone hill — 24 meters (yards) long, four meters deep and four meters wide.

It was carved by the Israelites in the Iron Age, sometime between 800 and 500 B.C. It apparently was used from the start as a ritual immersion pool, preceding the Jewish tradition of the ritual bath.

Over the centuries, the cave filled with mud and sediment, leaving only a tiny opening that was hidden by trees and bushes. Yet in recent years, it had occasional visitors — led by Reuven Kalifon, an immigrant from Cleveland, Ohio, and a Hebrew teacher at the kibbutz who would take his students spelunking.

They’d crawl through the narrow slit at the mouth of the cave, all the way to the back wall, though they’d see nothing but soil and walls.

In December 1999, Kalifon asked his friend Gibson to take a closer look. Gibson, who has excavated in the Holy Land for more than 30 years, moved a few boulders near the walls, and laid bare the crude carving of a head.

Excited by that find, Gibson organized a full-fledged excavation.

Over the next five years, Gibson and his team, including volunteers from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, cleared out the layers of soil, picking up about 250,000 shards from small jugs apparently used in purification rituals.

The explorers laid bare 28 steps leading to the bottom of the cave. On the right, a niche was carved into the wall — typical of those used in Jewish ritual baths for discarding the clothes before immersion. Near the end of the stairs, the team uncovered an oval stone with a foot-shaped indentation — about a shoe size 45 (U.S. size 11). Just above, a soapdish-like niche was carved into the stone, apparently for ritual oil that would flow through a small channel onto the believer’s right foot.

On the water-covered floor of the cave, stones and boulders had been moved aside by the worshippers and a middle path had been filled with gravel, apparently to protect those wading from stubbing their toes, said Egon Lass, an archaeological consultant at Wheaton College, near Chicago, Illinois, who also worked on the dig.

Crude images had been carved on the walls, near the ceiling, and Gibson said they tell the story of John’s life.

One is the figure of the man Gibson had spotted on his first visit to the cave. The man appears to have an unruly head of hair and wears a tunic with dots, apparently meant to suggest an animal hide. He grasps a staff and holds up his other hand in a gesture of proclamation. James Tabor, a Bible scholar from the University of North Carolina, said there is little doubt this is John himself. The Gospels say John was a member of the Nazarites, a sect whose followers didn’t cut their hair, and that he adopted the dress of the ancient prophets, including a garment woven of camel’s hair.

On the opposite wall is a carving of a face that could be meant to symbolize John’s severed head; the preacher had his head cut off by Herod Antipas after he dared to take the ruler of the Holy Land to task over an illicit affair.

Other carvings include crosses, and a picture of a hand, apparently a depiction of a famous relic of John.

The images are from the Byzantine era, apparently carved by monks who associated the site with John, following local folklore, Gibson and Tabor said.

Gibson, who heads the Jerusalem Archaeological Field Unit, a private research group, said the finds, taken together with the proximity of John’s hometown, constituted strong evidence that the cave was used by the preacher.

All these elements are coming together and fill in the picture of the life and times of John the Baptist,” said Gibson, who has written a book about the dig, entitled “The Cave of John the Baptist,” to be published later this week.

Gibson said pottery shards found in soil layers from top to bottom also show that the site was used for water purification rituals from the time of John through the 11th century, when the Crusaders burst onto the scene and began a new tradition — designating a site associated with the Baptist in a neighboring valley.

Tabor said that no one could ever say for certain that John the Baptist used the cave. However, he said the cave could help bring to life an important part of the New Testament. “We actually have a geographical location near Ein Kerem now at which water purification rites were conducted that go back to the first century and connects them to the traditions of John the Baptist,” he said.

Stephen Pfann, a Bible scholar and president of the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem, said that Gibson has provided a sensible explanation for the unusual finds, but that exploration must continue. “It is inviting more scholars to come in and give alternative explanations, if they can,” he said.

Gibson has provided for just such a possibility, leaving about one-third of the cave untouched to enable colleagues to dig further in the future.