I think that this sort of story is what helped turn me off archaeology; this, and the weeks of grimy labor sifting sand under the hot sun retrieving nothing but potsherds . . . .
. . . . This story reflects several problematic tendencies in the popular (biblical) archaeological market. We get their textual siblings over in literary historiography, so I’m not casting stones only at the other interpreters. But there have been heaps of hermits (I just spent way too much time trying to devise a collective noun for anchorites) in the Judean wilderness about whom we know absolutely nothing. We happen to know a little about one of them: John. So when an archaeologist finds a hermit’s cave that fits what we might expect John’s cave to have looked like, someone draws the inference that it actually was John’s cave.
The Bible narratives have a power over the imagination that tempts people to lead way beyond what the evidence offers . . . . Given “evidence” over here, and “possible answer” over there, people want badly to connect them and eliminate the uncertainty that dogs inconclusive data. Plus, more people will buy a book or watch a TV special is it says “Cave of John the Baptist” than if it says “Cave of Ascetic With Lustration Pools.”
But that’s a kind of argumentation that we would never accept in other spheres. It’s all circumstantial evidence, no positive evidence (as far as I’ve seen); and though we wouldn’t expect to see a stone at the entrance of the cave saying “937 Hermit Drive, Home of John the Baptist,” we have no particular reason to think that this was John’s own actual cave as opposed to the cave of some other hermit who might have looked like John, or a cave that some post-Johannine Baptists used for memorializing John. “Man with wild hair and carrying a staff”? Must be John the Baptist!