After 13 years on the job, finding a trove of 150 Byzantine-era coins is still exciting for Israel Antiquity Authority’s Guy Fitoussi. But it also makes him angry.
As head of the IAA’s theft prevention unit in the Negev, Fitoussi knows that with the discovery of troves like this one — found in the possession of a 50-year-old Bir Hadaj resident while he was searching for coins with a metal detector — countless historical sites are destroyed.
Sunday afternoon, the resident of Bir Hadaj, a Bedouin village near Beersheba which abuts the northern boundary of the Holot Mashabim nature reserve, was caught using a metal detector at the Haluza UNESCO World Heritage Site. Haluza was recognized in 2005 as it was part of the Nabatean Incense Route. The height of its settlement likely came later, during the Byzantine era.
Use of a metal detector at an antiquities site is a criminal offense in the State of Israel. According to Fitoussi, it is even illegal to have a metal detector in your vehicle at antiquities sites.
Owning a metal detector is not unlawful, Fitoussi clarifies, but it is illegal to look for antiquities in any part of the country. And in such a small country filled with antiquities, he said, “Even if you don’t mean to look for antiquities, you’ll probably stumble across them.”
According to Dr. Tali Erickson-Gini, an archaeologist for IAA in southern district, “The coins have yet to be cleaned and studied, but we usually find there Nabatean, Roman and Byzantine period coins.”
These particular bronze coins, now held as evidence in court, could date from circa the 1st century CE or slightly earlier to the 6th century CE, said Erickson-Gini.
Their impressive age, however, doesn’t mean they are valuable: Fitoussi would estimate the entire trove to be worth only a few hundred dollars. Their value is in their worth as research aids — at excavation sites.
“The minute they’re found outside of their context, we have no idea where they came from. Coins can give researchers a lot of information. It’s possible to learn a lot about places from them, but since we don’t know from where they came from exactly, the coins’ historical worth is devalued,” said Fitoussi.
Fitoussi said the team catches many who are looking for coins in the Negev area. In the case of the Bir Hadaj resident caught on Sunday, they were tipped off by a concerned citizen who called the police.
He said here in particular, the mostly Bedouin population is swayed by a Hollywood-esque notion of easy money through finding gold.
“It sounds very romantic, but it’s causing huge amounts of destruction — and it’s only getting worse,” he said.
“While chasing after money, antiquities robbers are stealing our history from our hands. The Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Police view any damage to the antiquities sites in Israel seriously and are working together to bring the perpetrators to justice,” said Fitoussi.
To combat the problem, Fitoussi said a team of volunteers keeps an eye on the sites and, perhaps more importantly, he gives periodic informative lectures at local schools.
“Part of the problem stems from ignorance,” he said. Pupils have heard romantic stories about treasure hunts and easy wealth, so when they grow up they decide to try their luck.
“Maybe it sounds a bit naive that if I go to a school and tell about the more academic and informative side, it will help the youth decide not to go do that when they grow up,” said Fitoussi.
As far as those who say they have a metal detector for recreational reasons, Fitoussi quipped that in a country brimming with antiquities like Israel, it’s probably better not to take a chance. “There are lots of other hobbies around,” he said.