Archaeology'We are totally shocked by the amount people are returning'

New campaign to anonymously return illegally held antiquities nets thousands of items

15% of public estimated to be holding antiquities in their homes that by law belong to the state; Israel Antiquities Authority’s collection drive extended another week

IAA archaeologist Marwan Masarwah holds a 1,700-year-old anchor in front of a sign advertising the campaign to encourage citizens to return illegally-held antiquities on June 15, 2023. (courtesy IAA)
IAA archaeologist Marwan Masarwah holds a 1,700-year-old anchor in front of a sign advertising the campaign to encourage citizens to return illegally-held antiquities on June 15, 2023. (courtesy IAA)

Thousands who were illegally holding antiquities in their homes returned the items during a two-week campaign this month, the Israel Antiquities Authority and Ministry of Heritage reported on Thursday.

The campaign — “If it’s old – return it with a click!” — encourages private citizens who have artifacts to report them online and return them anonymously and without questions.

It was originally slated to end on Thursday but will be extended for another week.

“We are totally shocked by the intensity and the amount that people are returning,” Yair Amitzur, the director of IAA’s educational initiatives for the central region, told The Times of Israel. Amitzur has been manning the drop-off spot where the public can return smaller items, and also visiting people’s homes to pick up larger items.

“We knew that people had things at home, but we had no idea what they had,” he said. “We’re finding that people are returning things from the entire timeline of Israel’s history, all types of pottery from all of the periods, even things from prehistory. They’re bringing bronze items, jewelry, metal tools, beautiful stone carvings, items that are pretty special.”

On Thursday, the IAA announced that a man named Moshe had returned a 1,700-year-old anchor that he found while diving in Palmachim beach in 1996. The lightweight, small anchor is a rare find because most of the anchors discovered here are much larger and heavier, and are therefore abandoned when a ship got into trouble and the sailors cut the anchor.

The 1,700 year old anchor recovered by a scuba diver in 1996 which was returned to the IAA during a campaign to return illegally-held antiquities, pictured on June 15, 2023. (courtesy IAA)

A small anchor was much more likely to be pulled back onto the ship and reused, so there are far fewer of them lying on the sea floor, explained Kobi Sharvit, the director of IAA’s Maritime Archaeology Unit. Sharvit believes the anchor was likely used during the Roman period, from 100 to 300 CE, for a small fishing boat.

In addition to the incredible anchor, Amitzur said that other items that top his list include two bronze handles carved lion-like heads, which were attached to a wooden coffin from the Roman period, Hasmonean coins from the time of the Great Maccabean Revolt, cannon balls from the Crusader period taken from Akko, and a carved stone coffin that is thousands of years old and has been used as a bench at Kibbutz Yagur, near Haifa.

Some 100 years ago, members of Kibbutz Yagur were working at local quarries owned by the British, when they uncovered an ancient burial site, and were able to rescue one of the burial chambers. They brought it to the kibbutz and kept it there for more than a century until the current campaign when they decided to return it.

Through the campaign, anyone can contact the IAA/Ministry of Heritage through phone, WhatsApp, Facebook, or the organizations’ websites, and report their privately held antiquities. They can return any findings anonymously and without any repercussions.

There are four pickup sites around the country.

According to Israeli law, any item created before the year 1700 CE, or any zoological or biological remains from before the year 1300 CE, are considered antiquities and automatically belong to the state.  Removing and keeping antiquities is illegal under the Israel Antiquities Law of 1978 and can be punishable by fines or even jail time.

According to a survey from the Geocartography Institute commissioned by the IAA and Ministry of Heritage, around 15% of Israelis have illegal antiquities at home.

The most common antiquities for people to keep in their homes are coins, followed by metal tools and books, but it also depends on the person’s background. According to the survey, secular Israelis are more likely to have coins, while national religious and Haredi Israelis are more likely to have ancient books.

Ancient coins, suspected to have been illegally excavated after they were recovered from a suspect’s home in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem, June 7, 2023. (Israel Antiquities Authority)

Age plays a role in how willing people are to return antiquities, the survey found. For people 35 and older, 76 percent said they would report or return antiquities, while that number grew to 82% for people older than 55 and 91% for those over 65.

“Many people have antiquities at home that came into their hands for a variety of different reasons,” said Eli Eskosido, the director-general of the IAA.

“Some were collected in the field, some were passed down from their family… many of them are not aware that according to the law, you must report antiquities, which are a historical and public treasure,” he added. “This campaign is asking for citizens to cooperate and return these antiquities to their rightful and legal place as property of our heritage. With us, in the state treasuries, these delicate items will be preserved and protected against the ravages of time. Some will be displayed, and others will add to our understanding of the country’s past.”

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