The Israel Antiquities Authority busted a gang of thieves in the act of plundering an ancient tomb in northern Israel over the weekend, the organization said in a statement Wednesday.
The illegal excavation caused “serious damage to the archaeological layers and the interred.” Human remains buried in the cave, believed dating to the Roman period, were disturbed, an IAA spokeswoman said.
It was unclear whether the tomb was Jewish, but the cave is associated with Horbat Mishkena, a Jewish village during the Roman period known to archaeologists from surveys and rabbinic literature.
Three unnamed suspected thieves, all from the village of Tur’an in the lower Galilee, were caught in the act by operatives with the IAA’s antiquities theft prevention unit, but had already caused a “huge mess.”
“The village of Mishkena is mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud as a Jewish village located half way between Sepphoris and Tiberias,” Nir Distelfeld, an IAA archaeologist, said. “The hollowed out burial caves, which are usually sealed with a large, heavy stone, sometimes contain items used in burial ceremonies.”
Items immaculately preserved in these caves could fetch a handsome price on the black market, he said, “and for the sake of money, the thieves destroy all of our history and erase whole parts of the archaeological puzzle of the country.”
The three suspects were arraigned at a local police station, interrogated and released on bail. If convicted, they could face a five year prison sentence for illegal excavation and destruction of antiquities.