Rise in antiquities theft vexes Israel's 'Indiana Joneses'
Looting in the West Bank is a new concern. But the 'James ossuary' reveals a need for continued vigilance at home
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Palestinians, of course, are by no means the only people involved in illegal trade. Just last month, authorities say they found 15 tons of stolen antiquities in the home of an Israeli man in the coastal town of Caesarea, a discovery that included marble pillars from the Roman period and a Jewish coffin made of stone from the Second Temple period. The man says he found the objects near his house, but an IAA spokeswoman says authorities are preparing an indictment against him.Skip to next paragraph
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Located on the Mediterranean Sea between Tel Aviv and Haifa, Caesarea is an ancient Roman port city built by King Herod in 21 BC. Excavations since the 1950s have uncovered a wealth of ruins, including city streets, aqueducts, baths, and a harbor, as well as a 5,000-seat theater used even now for plays and concerts.
Israel's 35,000 known archaeological sites range from small areas that containing only loose pottery shards to large, fortified, walled cities like Masada and the City of David in Jerusalem.
Under Israeli law, trading and exporting archaeological finds, whether found during an excavation or by chance, are prohibited without a license. The IAA grants about 300 excavation licenses a year and only 70 licenses to antiquity merchants. Those caught selling without a license risk a maximum jail sentence of three years. Although few get the full term, several people are serving six months to a year. The penalty may deter some people, but plenty of others seem prepared to get involved in the illegal, yet profitable, antiquities trade.
"Most of the time, diggers are looking for oil lamps, pottery, glassware, bronze objects, as well as clay stamps and items bearing written inscriptions," Kehati says. "These objects can go for hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars, and even more if they're found intact."
For the IAA and most archaeologists, the concern is not monetary, but the loss of cultural value when sites are destroyed. Petty thieves, gangs, professionals, and even entire villages are suspected of being in on the raiding act. Often they use sophisticated equipment, such as metal detectors and tractors, to dig deep into the ground, but shovels, picks and axes will do as well, Israeli authorities say.
"Illegal diggers make a big mess of the sites and as a consequence, they destroy the archaeological record and with it thousands of years of well-preserved layers of history," says IAA spokeswoman Osnat Goaz. "It's very important to know where objects come from in a dig. If not, they lose all their meaning."
Home to the world's three monotheistic religions, the Holy Land is sprinkled with sites from the ancient Israelite, Persian, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, and Ottoman periods. Often one civilization is built on the site of another.
"There is a big demand in Israel and abroad for all kinds of archaeological objects," says Kehati, taking time from his sleuthing duties for an interview at his office in the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum in east Jerusalem. "As long as people want to put nice things in their gardens and in their homes and are willing to pay for it, the problem is likely to continue."
"There are so many sites that it's hard to inspect everything," he adds. "But, we're doing all that we can to catch the thieves."