KIBBUTZ NIR OZ, Gaza Border — From afar, it sounds like a regular archaeological dig. The rhythmic whisper of fine dirt falling through a sieve, the clink of rocks as archaeologists paw through them manually, looking for the smallest items. The trowels, the brushes for more delicate excavation were all there, along with the square sieves and the ubiquitous black buckets for hauling the excavated material.
But this archaeological site isn’t thousands of years old.
Six weeks ago, these homes on Kibbutz Nir Oz were filled with furniture and pots and pans, and families gathered around the kitchen table. Now, the army’s missing persons unit has asked the Israel Antiquities Authority for help combing through some of the especially burned homes in hopes of identifying remnants of bodies, so they can provide families with a final answer about what may have happened to their loved ones.
Even more than 40 days after the October 7 massacre, when some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, air, and sea, there is no comprehensive list of fatalities. The Foreign Ministry believes that approximately 1,200 people were killed; at least 240 were kidnapped to Gaza. Last week, there were still approximately 40 people considered unaccounted for, who could be either kidnapped or killed.
Forensic pathologists are working around the clock to use DNA to identify bodies. But in cases where homes were torched, the army turned to archaeologists, hoping their expertise in uncovering human remains that are thousands of years old might help them find information that soldiers, Home Front Command, and ZAKA search and rescue volunteers may have missed.
A team of volunteer archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority has identified the remains of at least 10 people previously considered missing in the various kibbutzim near Gaza. Their work allowed experts to identify the remains of Vivian Silver, a Canadian-Israeli peace activist who had been presumed kidnapped by Hamas until this week.
‘A modern layer of destruction’
“We know how to excavate layers of destruction,” said Hai Ashkenazi, a geoinformatics manager who normally concentrates on excavations from the Early Bronze Period. “In these layers, things are always saved just as they were, right at this particular point in time. And here, what we’re seeing is just like a layer of destruction, but modern. These are local people, and it’s really hard.”
“We are trained to work very carefully and to identify the smallest bits,” Ashkenazi added. “We know how to work in a very organized way, to start from the surface layer, and slowly, slowly discover things. At the end of the day, I have excavated many layers of destruction. I’ve excavated many skeletons. I really feel like it’s something I know how to do that not many other people know how to do.”
Archaeologists are concentrating on homes that were extensively burned by the Hamas terrorists, because that has made identifying people who were inside those homes very difficult. “The fires were so strong, it’s basically like they were cremated,” said Ashkenazi. “The bones burned almost completely. There are only a few slivers of bones left, that’s why we’re going so carefully.”
Any fragments believed to belong to people are brought to the IDF and passed along to forensic pathologists at the Shura base or Abu Kabir Institute of Forensic Medicine, where they are tested for DNA.
In each home they search, the archaeologists quadrant off the home, methodically sifting through layers of ash for the smallest scraps of information, the same way they carefully excavate ancient sites, little by little. In some cases, they’ve found personal effects that can help with partial identification, such as a burned cell phone or even a wedding ring.
Soldiers help the archaeologists sift through the buckets that are removed from each house, the same way students and volunteers assist archaeologists in normal digs.
A fine layer of ash hangs in the air and clings to their faces, and the smell of burning is still strong and pungent, even though the last fires were put out weeks ago.
In most cases, this work helps the army rule out that someone was in the house or in a specific room, explained Joe Uziel, the head of the Israel Antiquities Authority Dead Sea Scrolls Unit. Understanding where a person was killed, or not killed, can help clarify the numbers of deceased or kidnapped. But in at least 10 cases, the team or archaeologists have been able to identify human remains that allowed the IDF to change the status of a missing person to deceased.
A glimpse into the past, devastation in the present
Over the past decade, increasingly advanced scientific methods and artificial intelligence have allowed archaeologists to make startling breakthroughs about how people lived, what they ate, and how they made tools, from the smallest bits of evidence, sometimes microscopic in size.
To see these same meticulous archaeological methods being used in homes that just weeks ago were full of life and laughter is nothing short of devastating, especially for the archaeologists themselves. “The human remains have been damaged to the point where only the use of archaeological methodology can help [identify them],” said Uziel.
“I’m looking at this the way we see the layers of destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE,” said Shai Halevy, a documentarian with the Israel Antiquities Authority who has extensive experience in excavations. “The remnants that we’re finding are almost exactly the same.”
Uziel said some of the hardest moments for him, aside from finding remains, are when archaeologists uncover a small pocket of the home that was somehow untouched by the fire, perhaps packed away tightly, providing a stark and sudden reminder of the difference between this excavation and the ones they normally do. “All of a sudden you see objects that belong to a family, their little slice of heaven turned into hell,” he said.
Archaeologists have been working for the past three weeks in Kibbutz Be’eri, Kissufim and Kfar Aza, and searching the burned cars from the festival near Re’im. All of the archaeologists are working voluntarily, and Ashkenazi said the response has been overwhelming, as many archaeologists rushed to answer the call. They will complete at least another week of work, and likely more beyond that, as the IDF deems necessary.
“In an archeological excavation, you’re always hoping to find something, but here it’s very mixed,” said Uziel. “On the one hand, you want to be able to find something to provide evidence and closure, and then on the other hand, you know that finding something means you’re determining the death of another person. So it’s a mixed feeling, but I think it’s the least we can do after everything that went on here.”
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