Israeli archaeologists believe ancient artifacts recently seized by police were spoils of war taken by Jewish rebels from their Roman enemies nearly 2,000 years ago.
Israel’s Antiquities Authority said Wednesday that the artifacts, including ornamental incense burners and a wine jug, may be battle loot dating back to the Bar Kochba revolt in 132-136 CE.
Police found the items during a routine patrol in Jerusalem’s Musrara neighborhood last week when detectives stopped and searched a suspicious vehicle that was driving the wrong way on a one-way street. In the trunk they found a box containing the archaeological artifacts.
The IAA’s Robbery Prevention Unit arrived at the police station and quickly determined that the finds date back to the Roman era.
The artifacts include bronze incense burners, which likely belonged to wealthy Roman homes or temples, and a bronze wine server decorated with a banquet scene depicting a person reclining with a jug of wine.
Authorities also found an ornate three-legged stone bowl, Roman clay lamps and hundreds of coins from the late Roman period in the 2nd-3rd centuries CE.
Bronze artifacts are rare in Israel because the metal was a valuable commodity and was often melted down and reused. Ancient bronze items are usually found at sites where they were deliberately hidden, or in complexes used for hiding after battle during the Bar Kochba revolt, the Antiquities Authority said.
The IAA carried out a criminal investigation against the three suspects who were found with the artifacts, which strengthened suspicions that the trove was brought to Jerusalem to sell to a dealer.
The authority believes the artifacts were stolen from a Bar Kochba hiding complex located near the Tarqumiya border crossing in the southern West Bank.
The site has been under recent surveillance after authorities found unauthorized excavations at the site, and launched an operation to capture suspects, but “unfortunately the robbers managed to escape,” said Amir Ganor, director of the Robbery Prevention Unit.
“When they fled, they left behind ancient finds that are similar to those now recovered in the suspects’ possession. We believe that the finds that were recently recovered in Jerusalem were taken from this site,” he said.
The authority said the items were likely taken by the rebels but not used by the Jewish fighters themselves, since they were decorated with pagan imagery, violating the Jewish prohibition against idolatry. If the Jews had wanted to use the items, they would have defaced the imagery.
Also, by the time of the rebellion, the Second Temple had been destroyed and Jews were no longer practicing the rites of sacrifice and incense burning.
“These ancient finds embody the country’s history, but for robbers and dealers they are merely a commodity, sold to the highest bidder for pure greed,” said Eli Eskozido, director of the Antiquities Authority. “It is tremendously important to prevent any attempts to deal in illegal antiquities, to recover valuable finds and to return them to the public and the country.”
The Bar Kochba revolt, which lasted three and a half years, was the last and arguably greatest of several Jewish uprisings against foreign rulers in ancient times.
The rebels prepared well ahead of time and, according to the third-century historian Dio Cassius, Roman legions were brought from other empire outposts to quell it.
Dio Cassius wrote that by the revolt’s end, some 50 Jewish fortresses and around 1,000 settlements were destroyed, along with hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives lost.