Two people suspected of attempting to steal antiquities caused irreversible damage to an ancient wine press in the north of the country, the Israel Antiquities Authority said in a statement Monday.
The suspects were arrested the day before, when they were caught “red-handed” digging at the Soger ruins in the Western Galilee region in the north of the country, where they dislodged the mosaic floor of the press.
“The damage to the site is heartbreaking: the excavation displaced a mosaic floor that had stood here undisturbed for about 2,000 years,” said Nir Distelfeld, supervisor of the Antiquities Authority’s northern region robbery prevention unit.
Distelfeld said it was not clear why the robbers had targeted the site and that recently five other suspects were caught at the same location digging in a burial cave.
A joint effort by the Antiquities Robbery Prevention Unit working together with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Border Police foiled the robbery, the IAA statement said.
Inspectors carrying out routine surveillance noticed a suspicious-looking SUV parked among some bushes at the Soger site.
IAA wardens and a Border Police team moved in and found the suspects still at the bottom of a pit they had dug. The suspects caused significant and “irreversible” damage to the 2,000-year-old mosaic floor of the wine press, and also damaged ancient plasterwork on a gateway.
The suspects were arrested and will be charged, the IAA said.
Distelfeld explained that in ancient times, Soger was a thriving settlement and that another wine press had been found there in the past that shed light on the development of the agricultural industry in the area during the Roman and Byzantine periods.
IAA director Eli Eskosido said that in the past two weeks, there were seven antiquities thieves caught across the country. Though damaging an antiquities site carries a maximum penalty of up to five years in prison, he called for stiffer penalties on those convicted.