Archaeologist in reserve duty near Gaza finds ancient mortar for grinding grain

Find is second item in recent weeks discovered by soldiers in border area and turned over to the Israel Antiquities Authority

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

  • A grain grinder discovered in a staging area near Gaza, in a photo released on December 7, 2024. (Sarah Tal/IAA)
    A grain grinder discovered in a staging area near Gaza, in a photo released on December 7, 2024. (Sarah Tal/IAA)
  • Lt. Col Yair Amitsur and Sarah Tal, both of the IAA, with a grain grinder discovered in a staging area near Gaza, in a photo released on December 7, 2024. (Ilan Glick/IAA)
    Lt. Col Yair Amitsur and Sarah Tal, both of the IAA, with a grain grinder discovered in a staging area near Gaza, in a photo released on December 7, 2024. (Ilan Glick/IAA)
  • A grain grinder discovered in a staging area near Gaza, in a photo released on December 7, 2024. (Sarah Tal/IAA)
    A grain grinder discovered in a staging area near Gaza, in a photo released on December 7, 2024. (Sarah Tal/IAA)

Most of Israel’s soldiers who are doing their reserve duty in the Israel-Hamas conflict have been forced to put their regular careers on hold. This wasn’t the case for Yair Amitsur, an archaeologist currently serving as a reservist Home Front Command officer near the Gaza border who recently found an ancient stone mortar and turned it over to his employer, the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Lt. Col. (res.) Amitsur of the Gaza Division discovered the item during a routine patrol in a staging area in the Gaza envelope, along with Lt. Col. Elyashiv Bohbot, a division rabbi, the IAA said in a Sunday press release.

The bowl-shaped mortar, of makhtesh in Hebrew, is made of basalt and weighs more than 10 kilograms (22 lbs). Paired with a pestle (usually a long wooden pole), such items have been used since antiquity to grind dry grain and legumes into flour.

“We are familiar with basalt from the north of the country or other remote areas. In light of this, it’s clear that the tool we found was brought here from a distance, and probably used in the past in the home of someone to grind grain or other products. We were excited to suddenly get a greeting from the past and have some good news to deal with for a moment,” Amitsur said.

“We are doing important work here, but I look forward to the day when I can return to doing archeology full-time,” he added.

The “remarkably well-preserved” item was likely used in a home, as large-scale grinding was done by millstones, the IAA said. The age of the mortar was not given, but the authority noted that similar items were in use in the region from “antiquity until the Mamluk period,” or the late Middle Ages.

Lt. Col. Elyashiv Bohbot with a grain grinder discovered in a staging area near the Gaza border. (Yair Amitsur/IAA)

“The war creates extraordinary situations on the archaeological front as well. The earth of the Land of Israel… is saturated with history and ancient findings, and the IAA cooperates with the IDF to preserve them even in situations of war,” said Eli Escusido, IAA director.

“In this case, we were fortunate that one of our employees, an archaeologist serving in the reserves, identified the ancient discovery and knew how to proceed.”

Escusido said that citizens discovering archaeological artifacts should leave the items in place and contact the antiquities authority. Under Israeli law, any man-made object from before the year 1700 is defined as an antiquity, and if found by a citizen must be turned over to the IAA within 15 days.

Last month, members of a reserve unit of the 282nd Artillery Regiment found a small, 1,500-year-old oil lamp near the border with Gaza and turned it over to the Israel Antiquities Authority.

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