Antiquities robbers sentenced to jail for destroying 2,000-year-old graves
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Antiquities robbers sentenced to jail for destroying 2,000-year-old graves

In light of irrevocable damage to Second Temple Jewish settlement, Israel Antiquities Authority hopes prison terms will prove a deterrent

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Destruction in a 2,000-year-old Galilee Roman village and opening of the burial cave exposed by a backhoe. (Nir Distelfeld, Israel Antiquities Authority)
Destruction in a 2,000-year-old Galilee Roman village and opening of the burial cave exposed by a backhoe. (Nir Distelfeld, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Three antiquities robbers were sentenced to four to nine months’ jail time by the Nazareth Magistrate’s Court last week for destroying 2,000-year-old burial caves in an ancient village located in the Lower Galilee between Tzippori and Tiberias.

On March 14, 2017, three adults and two minors were discovered using a backhoe to dig into graves at Horbat Mishkena, a ruined Jewish settlement that dates from 1st-6th century CE, in search of potentially valuable burial objects.

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), tipped off by a volunteer border guard, sent its Theft Prevention Unit, which caught the five robbers in the act — but after they had caused untold destruction to four burial caves as well as ancient agricultural infrastructure at the site.

A confiscated backhoe responsible for destruction at a 2,000-year-old Roman village in the Galilee. (Police Spokesperson)

In handing down the sentence last week, the court stated that “the robbery of antiquities has become a national plague that wipes out entire pages of history; any damage to an antiquities site is inherently irreversible.”

The three defendants were convicted of damaging an antiquities site, performing an operation at an antiquities site without a permit, and attempting to steal under aggravated circumstances. They face jail terms of between four to nine months, as well as the forfeiture of the backhoe used in the operation.

“The antiquities site was a village in the Roman period, which is mentioned in the Talmud as a Jewish village halfway between Zippori and Tiberias,” said Nir Distelfeld, who oversees the IAA’s Theft Prevention Unit.

Mishkena is also the site where, in 1187, the doomed Crusader army was finally able to drink — from Birket Maskana — on its way to the nearby Horns of Hattin, ahead of its fateful showdown with Salah ad-Din.

Basalt stone living surface with the limestone basin, looking south, at the Israel Antiquities Authority’s 2011 excavation at Horbat Mishkena. (Israel Antiquities Authority)

The IAA completed a small salvage excavation near the site in 2011 ahead of the construction of an overpass at the Golani junction, headed by archaeologist Yardenna Alexandre.

According to Alexandre’s report, “The imperial Roman road from Ptolemais-‘Akko via Sepphoris to Tiberias, paved by Hadrian in 120 CE, ran very close to the present excavation and c. 60 m to its east, a 400 m long basalt-slab paved segment of the ancient road was exposed.”

The area shows signs of much earlier settlement, however. According to Alexandre, “surveys in the vicinity documented flint implements and some potsherds from Iron II, and the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman periods. No archaeological excavation has been carried out to date within the Sirat Maskana complex.”

Destruction in a 2,000-year-old Galilee Roman village and opening of the burial cave exposed by a backhoe. (Nir Distelfeld, Israel Antiquities Authority)

For parts of the site, the damage done by the grave robbers precludes further academic investigation.

“I believe that the sentence will make people think ten times before they go to harm antiquities sites, which are the cultural heritage of our country,” said Distelfeld.

Destruction at a 2,000-year-old Roman village in the Galilee. (Police Spokesperson)

Distelfeld requested continued public vigilance to prevent similar damage elsewhere.

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