For over 40 years, tens of thousands of ancient artifacts confiscated from smugglers and looters in the West Bank were stockpiled in the offices of the Antiquities Department of the Civil Administration (ADCA). With no certified provenance and no certain way of ascertaining their origins, the 40,000 stolen antiquities sat in storage for decades.
In archaeology, an artifact’s context is considered as important as the item itself. Without a clear origin story, archaeologists are often loathe to research and publish scientific studies on random relics of the past. And so the recovered items sat.
In 2010, however, the new Staff Officer of Archaeology of the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria Area, Hananya Hezmi began implementing protocols customary for artifacts discovered at known excavations.
Based out of a small group of semi-permanent structures in the West Bank industrial-zone town of Mishor Adumim, Hezmi’s small team of archaeologists began sorting, dating, registering, and documenting the finds, through photography and other scientific methods.
In the process, they stumbled upon some rare items, generated both in the Holy Land and abroad, which Hezmi said are leading to “innovations” in the field, including new understandings of trade routes in the ancient world.
Since 2013, the team has worked in collaboration with experts in the field towards the publication of scientific essays on the collection. The recently published first of four volumes, called “Finds Gone Astray: ADCA Confiscated Items,” catalogues 134 examples of the more unique items. Coinciding with the publication, the Civil Authority has loaned a collection of items for display in an exhibit of the same name, which opens on December 31 at the Jerusalem-based Bible Lands Museum.
The Times of Israel spoke with Hezmi this week at the museum as the curators put the finishing touches on the glass-front vitrine cases, affixing labels and placing final items.
Hezmi heads the Antiquities Department of the Civil Administration, officially part of the Ministry of Defense, which has the thankless task of enforcing the Antiquities Law in Judea and Samaria, an area riddled with remains of settlements dating to biblical times or even earlier. According to that law, any artifact discovered on private or public land in Area C must be turned over to the Civil Authority within three days.
Hezmi said he spends a budget-stretching 80 percent of his unit’s time on enforcement and the fallout of looting and smuggling. The other 20% is spent on what the team would rather be doing: developing new sites, overseeing excavations, research and preservation.
In addition to a variety of hi-tech surveillance, he has two or three inspectors in the field at most times, and another five members of his team that help out during emergencies. He coordinates directly with security forces and police in all situations.
“It’s like a fire alarm. When it’s pulled, everyone comes out to help,” said Hezmi.
However, with a massive area to patrol, although he’s sent some 50 cases to the court system this year, it’s often a losing battle — as the confiscated items on display can attest.
Located near the museum’s coffee cart, two large permanent cases and a small temporary stand hold a selection of confiscated pottery artifacts, which date from the Bronze Age (late 3rd–2nd millennia BCE) through the Byzantine Era (5th–7th centuries CE).
The connecting thread between all the antiquities is that they were confiscated post-1967 in the West Bank or nearby. Many were taken from smugglers at the Allenby Bridge border crossing in Jordan, said Hezmi. Others were confiscated from dealers in Jerusalem’s Old City, a storage and distribution center at the Arab village of Hizme, and at sites near the ancient city of Samaria and in the Hebron Hills.
Whether it is individuals wishing to add to a personal collection, as a way of making quick cash, or as part of a systemic gang, the West Bank is rife with of antiquities robbers and smugglers. In many cases, the current Palestinian or Jewish towns sit on ancient settlements, creating easy access for pirate excavators.
Many of the items, said Hezmi, were likely taken from tombs. The more intact the pottery, the higher the likelihood of grave robbery, he said. Citing Bronze Age inscriptions found in tombs in the Gehenna valley near Jerusalem warning tomb raiders against disturbing the dead (and stating that there was no gold or silver to be found), he said wryly that looting is a time-honored tradition.
What’s on display
The primary goal of the Bible Lands Museum, said director Amanda Weiss, is to use innovative programming and exhibits to display the history of the region, the proverbial crossroads of antiquity.
“Finds Gone Astray is a unique opportunity to shed light on the importance of preserving the history of our region and protecting our ancient sites. We welcome this partnership with the Civil Administration Officer of the Archaeological Staff Unit, and are proud to host the exhibition and launch of the publication to help increase public awareness to the jeopardy in which our heritage is in these objects are witnesses to history and link the generations in the universal story of the development of humankind,” said Weiss.
Standing next to the Finds Gone Astray exhibit cases this week, deputy museum director Leora Berry added that one of the most important missions of the museum is to preserve the region’s heritage for posterity.
“What we display in this institute is not only connected to us; it’s a responsibility to display them to future generations,” said Berry.
Among the more interesting items on display are found in the case reserved for items whose origins are beyond the State of Israel.
In a partitioned, dimly lit section of the case are six beautifully crafted incantation bowls, three in Jewish Aramaic and three with Syriac and Mandaic inscriptions, which are likely from Babylon/Iraq and date to circa 5th-7th century CE. With illustrations including a human face and what appears to be a chicken, they are examples from the 30 which were confiscated some 15-20 years ago at the Allenby Bridge crossing with the cooperation of the Jordanian security forces.
The bowls were inscribed with text written in a spiral and buried upside down under private dwellings’ doorposts, said exhibit curator Ori Meiri. Deputy directory Berry laughed that the spiral it was perhaps a way to trap the demons.
According to an essay written by epigraphist Haggai Misgav, who studied the Jewish Aramaic bowls, “Magic was a shared cultural platform for all inhabitants of this region. Bowls used by Jews, Christians and pagans were alike not only in the design of the text and the way it was used, but also the magical formulas and names of angels and demons mentioned.”
One of the bowls in the exhibit is filled with repeated nonsense words, he writes, while another invokes the foundational “Hear O Israel” prayer.
In the case of the example on display, “The names of the bowls’ clients also vary widely and most of them do not seem to be Jewish. Just as the magicians who were the authors drew on a variety of sources of magical knowledge, so their clients did not seem to care whether the magic spells were written by Jews or non-Jews as long as the incantation proved reliable,” writes Misgav.
By far the most striking part of the Finds Gone Astray exhibit is a series of seven figurines that are several thousand years old and thought to have come from Syria. Several of the elongated, thin figures are clutching at breasts. The most unusual has two gender-bending heads: one bears a crown and another, which has breast and a small beard.
According to independent scholar and television producer Rick Hauser, “The style of manufacture dates to the last centuries of the second millennium BCE and is easily recognizable, as if certain of the exemplars were struck from the same mold, even though they are hand-formed.”
Hauser, far from discounting the figurines and other antiquities because they lack provenance, is the author of a new typology for classifying previously unidentifiable artifacts. In the Finds Gone Astray publication, he writes that after detailed analysis, they can be “rightfully set in the company of similar objects for which a find-spot is known.” He continues, “Perhaps all such objects whose place of origin is in question should be studied and described in diagnostic detail as if they had been excavated with archaeological rigor.”
And that is exactly the point of the exhibit and publication: To illuminate formerly neglected items, despite their lack of “pure” origins.
While the exhibit is projected to end in the summer, the publication preserves the items and offers an accessible record for the public. According to the editor of the volume, Dalit Regev, “This book provides a glance at an abundant variety of items that would otherwise have been lost, and which, without publication, were doomed to be hidden from research.”