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

Not everyone gets a chance to play on-screen action hero Indiana Jones in real life, but Ron Kehati of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) comes close.

Mr. Kehati, an archaeologist by training, is part of the authority's special Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Theft, charged with preserving and preventing the looting of archaeological treasures from Israel's 35,000 known field sites.

Kehati and his enforcement colleagues are out in the field every day stopping "bad guys" (aka antiquities thieves) from plying their trade.

Working on tips from the police, army, intelligence service, local farmers, and just about anyone else, the antitheft unit investigates hundreds of reports of illegal digging each year. They roam the marketplaces in Jerusalem's Old City looking for ill-gotten goods, monitor auctions, and licensed shops, and set up ambushes at night in hopes of catching diggers red-handed.

Looters are not exactly looking for the Ark of the Covenant, but they do turn up precious objects from time to time. Only last month, a private Israeli collector revealed he possessed a small limestone ossuary that may be the ancient burial box of James, the brother of Jesus of Nazareth. The owner of this potentially earth-shattering find, who has been interrogated by Israeli officials, reportedly says he bought it for a few hundred dollars in the 1970s from a dealer who, in turn, most likely acquired it from a professional grave robber. (Some experts dispute the ossuary's significance, and still others have suggested it is a fake.)

Raiders of the West Bank

The bigger problem these days, though, is outside the IAA's jurisdiction, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Authorities in Israel say there's been a noticeable rise in the plundering of archaeological treasures in the territory, where unemployment runs as high as 40 percent and, because of current political tensions, many Palestinians are no longer allowed to work in Israel.

"We see the results of the destruction of archaeological sites [in the West Bank] as thousands of pieces make their way to the shops here in Jerusalem," says Kehati.

As sites in the West Bank are being emptied, it appears more Palestinians are taking the risk of crossing the politically sensitive "Green Line" that separates Israel from the West Bank, in search of more promising places to dig. A rise in poverty is a likely motive. Last year, the IAA's anti-theft unit reported that it caught a Palestinian Authority policeman digging within Israel to supplement his meager wages.

The Palestinian Authority (PA), for its part, set up an antiquities department after the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords with Israel in 1993. But critics in Israel say its ability to stop theft has been limited and that digging continues unabated in many Palestinian-controlled areas. The PA's Ministry of Culture counts some 1,600 major archaeological sites in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but the authority has not enacted legislation to regulate their safety.

Adel Yahya, an archaeologist with the Palestinian Association for Cultural Exchange, recently told the American press that the level of destruction of archaeological sites has dramatically increased. "Places excavated in previous years have been abandoned and are not protected," he said. Some observers have argued that the presence of Israeli troops impedes Palestinian access to some sites.

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.

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.

A history forever lost

"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."

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