A 1,800-year-old burial cave in northern Israel was nearly destroyed after a family building their house failed to report the discovery of antiquities and then tried to cover up the evidence, the Israel Antiquities Authority reported Tuesday.
Responding to a tip, police officers and inspectors from the IAA’s Theft Prevention Unit arrived at a construction site on a private lot in the Mashhad Regional Council, near Kfar Kana in the Galilee. They discovered bulldozers and heavy equipment that had completely destroyed an ancient burial cave carved out of rock, leaving nothing but a burial mound.
“There’s a misconception that if people report discoveries, then it will stop the work and they’ll be delayed, but it’s not necessarily true,” said Nir Distelfeld, supervisor of the IAA Theft Prevention Unit’s’s northern region. “Here, instead of stopping and reporting, they didn’t do that, they were hiding it.”
By the time inspectors arrived at the Mashhad site, one burial cave had been completely destroyed. A pile of large stones in another corner of the lot also looked suspicious, and after asking the managers to remove the pile they found another burial cave hewn into the rock with nine burial mounds. The exterior of that cave was damaged, but at the entrance, inspectors discovered three ossuaries, or intricately carved stone boxes that were used for storing bones.
By law, any antiquities discoveries must be immediately reported to the Israel Antiquities Authority. Distelfeld said the owners of the property will likely be indicted both for failing to report an antiquity discovery and for damaging an antiquity site. Damaging an antiquity site can carry a sentence of up to five years’ jail time, though most judges usually reduce that to a monetary fine. Fines can be upwards of NIS 20,000, he said.
The public can report any antiquities discoveries to the IAA tip line 073-350-7350 or by via the IAA website.
“I’m sure we’re losing a lot of antiquities here because people see things and don’t want to report,” Distelfeld told The Times of Israel. “When you report something, we have the responsibility to go there and check it out as quickly as possible, and we’ll make the minimum delay that’s possible.”
He said most reports of discoveries from private citizens are resolved in a matter of days after archaeologists carry out a survey. In Mashhad, the family will continue to build, now that IAA inspectors have surveyed what was left of the second burial cave.
The IAA also carries out surveys any time a construction project is approved, including new roads or neighborhoods, which is when they can make big discoveries such as an enormous Byzantine wine press in Yavne. But in some cases, people discover antiquities on their land when they are expanding their family’s home or digging new infrastructure.
Distelfeld, who has worked with the IAA for 23 years, does not think the family involved was purposefully trying to rob the site of antiquities, but rather trying to avoid construction delays. The three ossuaries discovered were moved from their original spot.
“We don’t know if there was theft. My feeling is that I think there was an attempt, but they didn’t do it,” said Distelfeld. “I think they started moving [the ossuaries] and then they regretted it, and left them there.”
Rectangular, soft limestone ossuaries were used widely for Jewish burials in Israel starting about 100 BCE. Ancient factories, mostly around Jerusalem, made the ossuaries for local burials. After the Bar Kokhba revolt, when many Jews moved north to the Galilee, they brought the practice with them.
The tops of the ossuaries had carvings influenced by Greek culture, including a circular wreath that likely symbolized victory over death, according to Eitan Klein, deputy director of the IAA’s Theft Prevention Unit.
“The discovery of carved stone ossuaries in the cave in the village of Mashhad indicates the presence of Jewish settlement in the area in the second and third centuries,” said Klein.
Archaeologists discovered other items inside the burial cave, including glass vessels and beads, and clay candleholders.
“We will never know what that burial cave that was destroyed looked like – and everything inside is gone,” said Amir Ganon, director of the Theft Prevention Unit. “Cultural assets nearly 2,000 years old were lost forever.”