Antiquities thieves arrested at Herodian fortress and Iron Age site
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Antiquities thieves arrested at Herodian fortress and Iron Age site

As West Bank’s Civil Administration’s Archaeology Unit cracks down on ransacking of ancient sites, burglars jailed and fined, equipment confiscated

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

Suspected antiquities burglars spotted by the Civil Administration's Archaeology Unit and Nature Authority this week near the Jordan Valley archaeological site of Tana a-Tahta. (COGAT Spokesperson's Office)
Suspected antiquities burglars spotted by the Civil Administration's Archaeology Unit and Nature Authority this week near the Jordan Valley archaeological site of Tana a-Tahta. (COGAT Spokesperson's Office)

Two crews of antiquities thieves were arrested at sites in eastern Samaria in the West Bank in two unrelated incidents in the past two weeks.

In a statement released by the Ministry of Defense, Head of the Civil Administration’s Archaeology Unit Hananya Hizmi said, “The phenomenon of the theft and destruction of antiquities causes both historical and cultural damage to all of the residents of the region.

“We work hard, night and day, in order to ensure quiet, order and lawfulness, and we will act with all of our abilities and capabilities to prevent illegal activity,” said Hizmi.

During a routine tour two weeks ago, the Civil Administration’s Archaeology Unit and Nature Authority stopped four suspects after noting “illegal excavation and antiquities theft at the site,” according to the Ministry of Defense statement.

Suspected antiquities burglars spotted by the Civil Administration’s Archaeology Unit and Nature Authority in mid-February near the Jordan Valley archaeological site of Alexandrium. (COGAT Spokesperson’s Office)

The suspects were stopped at the northern Jordan Valley Hasmonean site of Alexandrium, which was built by Alexander Yannai (104-77 BCE) and rebuilt by Herod (74-4 BCE) as a fortress. It was razed in the Great Revolt against the Romans, circa 72 CE.

The site of Alexandrium is also known as Sartaba in the Babylonian Talmud, which identifies it as a “signal mountain.” It is the second in a chain of stations in which fires were lit to proclaim the new moon, which began the new Hebrew month. The nearby town of Massua (torch) commemorates the Talmudic account.

Excavations in the early 1980s conducted by Yoram Tsafrir and Yitzhak Magen discovered remains of the Second Temple period fortress rebuilt by Herod to secure the eastern border. Today it is a popular hiking destination and known in Arabic as Qarn Sartabe.

According to the Ministry of Defense release, when the four suspects were arrested by Israel Police they had in their possession excavation tools, metal detectors, as well as a Jeep Defender, which were all confiscated. Following a court hearing, two were released after serving 10 days in jail and fined NIS 2,000 ($550). The other two burglars are still serving their 35-day sentence and will be fined NIS 4,000. An additional NIS 8,000 fine was levied on the burglars for the confiscated vehicle.

Tools confiscated by antiquities burglars spotted by the Civil Administration’s Archaeology Unit and Nature Authority in the Jordan Valley. (COGAT Spokesperson’s Office)

In a separate incident, a pair of suspected antiquities burglars were arrested this week at the Tana a-Tahta archaeological site. The pair are awaiting trial.

Dating to the Iron Age, Tana a-Tahta was settled through the early Islamic Period. Nearby Khirbet Tana has unauthorized Palestinian settlement that, according to leftist settlement watchdog group B’Tselem, is periodically demolished.

According to the Ministry’s statement, the remains at the site include residences in the forms of buildings and caves, a bathhouse, burial caves, water cisterns and agricultural installations.

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