Israel’s Amnesty for Antiquities Looters Produces Treasures – HAARETZ
Israel’s Amnesty for Antiquities Looters Produces Treasures – HAARETZ

Israel’s Amnesty for Antiquities Looters Produces Treasures – HAARETZ


Israel’s security chiefs are traitors to the State of Judea | Opinion
Israel’s Amnesty for Antiquities Looters Produces Treasures
The sarcophagus on the porch, an anchor, the army officer with glue, heaps of coins and jewels, grandkids with no appreciation of the finer things in ancient life: Here are some of the things the Antiquities Authority found when people were given a chance to hand over illegally taken artifacts from archaeological sites in Israel

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Yoram Haimi of the Antiquities Authority with some of the returned ancient artifacts.Credit: Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority
Ruth Schuster
Jul 4, 2023

How did people live in antiquity, before the invention of electricity, canned cat food or the wheel? We can glimpse hints at the way we were at archaeological sites but, the Israel Antiquities Authority points out, looting is illegal. One may not take antiquities home to gloat over, but it is commonly done – and in recent weeks hundreds of Israelis took advantage of a temporary amnesty the IAA offered to return thousands of antiquities that had been kept in family homes and private collections. Or the car.

“His father had been a high-ranking army officer who died years ago. Going through his father’s stuff in storage, this guy found two boxes absolutely stuffed with antiquities,” says IAA archaeologist Roni Hoofien, describing the case of the offspring from North Tel Aviv. The man put the boxes in the trunk of his car, and there they stayed. For years. Then his wife noticed an advertisement about the amnesty campaign and he contacted the IAA.

Observing the brimming boxes, Hoofien was flabbergasted. “There were basalt tools from the Chalcolithic period, complete ones,” she says, noting that assuming this identification is accurate, they’re over 5,000 years old.

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A small selection from the vast number of items returned to the StateCredit: Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities
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“There were brooches and bracelets made of bronze. There were coins, from the earliest days of money through to the Byzantine period. Some are rare,” she adds, based on analysis by IAA numismatists.

There were Roman glass vials that had been found broken, as is usually the case, but which Hoofien says, based on conversation with his son, the officer “reconstructed” by gluing the fragments in his garden.

Stone tools can’t be dated out of context unless they are typical of a specific period. In this case, the basaltic tools were identified as hailing from the Chalcolithic by inscriptions written on them – by the officer, in black Magic Marker. He also wrote their point of origin: Tel Hazor, northern Israel.

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Ceramic pots and lamps galore: Just some of the returned antiquities – some showing signs of repair!Credit: Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority
Other items in the bootleg assortment were also marked. The collection also contained figurines; arrowheads – some made of stone but mostly metal; an armor-penetrating spearhead from the Crusader period; and brooches used to fasten clothing.

The amnesty is over but that man phoned again to say that he found another box while rooting around, Hoofien adds.

The reaction from the general public was absolutely stunning, officials at the authority say with awe. So were some of the materials being handed over.

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Regained burial boxCredit: Emil Aladjem Israel Antiquities
It’s bad enough when a person is strolling the hills or plowing a field and encounters an artifact that they pick up and take home in innocence, says IAA archaeological Mor Viezel. This happens all the time, certainly in Israel, which humans first reached about 200,000 years ago, if not before, and had been thronged by predecessors to humans for millions of years, so the land is riddled with antiquities.

Yes, the IAA also recovered stone tools from the prehistoric period, she says. But mainly, in this amnesty campaign, the authorities regained whole collections.

Under the Antiquities Law 1978, any and all antiquities found in Israel (defined as predating the year 1700) belong to the state, explains the IAA’s anti-theft chief Amir Ganor. The law sets forth the penalties for wrongdoers and specifically prohibits excavation – even of your own living room – without a permit from the IAA.

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Roni Hoofien with an extraordinary collection of recovered artifactsCredit: Assaf Peretz, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority
Say you’re a dentist, can you get an excavation permit? You cannot. Only certified accredited archaeologists who can show they have funding for the dig and the ability to publicize findings can get permits, Ganor clarifies. You can volunteer to help.

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To some, illegality was never an impediment. “A week ago, the IAA got a call from a woman who had bought storage space containing the estate of an archaeologist. Inside, she found 15 huge boxes full of antiquities,” Viezel says. Researchers know better today, but old-school archaeologists often kept things from their digs, she adds.

To be clear: Under the law, antiquities acquired before 1978 are legal if their possessor can prove it was acquired before that year, Viezel explains. But one would have had difficulty proving licit provenance of the massive ballista stones from the Roman period that were delivered to the IAA in another car trunk.

The amnesty was the brain wave of IAA Director Eli Escozido. Ganor points out that the state prosecution had to be on board because if somebody has illegal possession of an antiquity, that is a crime; hence the immunity from prosecution was limited in time. The campaign is now over.

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Ballista stones, like the ones the Romans used the quell the First Jewish Revolt.Credit: Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority
“We received hundreds of inquiries from citizens and thousands of items were returned to the authority – among them large collections of interesting and special antiquities,” Escozido says by text. “To be honest, even we were amazed by the intensity of the response and the items that people kept in their homes.

“No less gratifying is the widespread response and the understanding that they must be returned to their rightful place. With us, in the state treasures, the sensitive items will be documented and preserved against the ravages of time. Some of them will go to exhibitions, and probably some of them, after research, will add information about the country’s past,” he says.

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Ancient oil lamps galore were returned.Credit: Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities
Visitation by a grotesque god

Some pick up a coin or piece of broken glass unearthed by wind or rain and peeping from their hiking trail. Some, heaven knows how, lug home sarcophagi or other giant artifacts, requiring cranes to remove from their porches.

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A crane removing an illegal sarcophagus from a house in Israel.Credit: Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority
Then there was the lady in Bnei Zion, central Israel. She had, she told the IAA by phone, a bunch of things to return. “She claimed she had bought it all years ago, most of it from an archaeologist” – also illegal, by the way. But this was next level, Viezel says.

“I went into her house. There were small artifacts on a table: jewels, coins, and so forth,” she relates. Lovely. But then the lady ushered the archaeologist into another room. “What she had there wouldn’t have shamed a museum. She had pottery, from small items to big ones. She had ivory artifacts [a rarity in the Middle East]. She had thousands of coins, jewelry, weights from the all periods, scarabs, seals, bullae [seal stamps], figurines – even a stone mold to make clay figurines,” Viezel reports.

What figurine was made using the mold? Apparently the Egyptian god Bes, she answers. We add that figurines of the grotesque good-luck godling have been found in various archaeological contexts in Israel, including in Jerusalem itself. So far, Bes hasn’t been found in the context of early Israelite households, though they did have other figurines. So much for monotheism.

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Some of the seal stamps that were returned.Credit: Emil Aladjem Israel Antiquities Authority
Some of the lady’s pottery collection had been found (originally) in the sea, judging by encrustation. She had ancient dice, pipes, glass, lamps from every imaginable period, stone vessels (used by Jews) – it went on and on. Thousands upon thousands of pieces.

“She had a collection of tesserae [tiles] for mosaics that she grouped by color,” Viezel says. Why did she do that? She had been thinking of reusing them, apparently.

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Credit: Emil Aladjem Israel Antiquities
No, her collection didn’t include any complete mosaics, just tesserae from mosaics that had been broken up. It is enough to make you cry.

Why did the woman turn over her collection, after all these years? Perhaps she felt uneasy about her grandchildren playing with the artifacts, which they were. In any case, the amnesty created a golden opportunity to return things without trouble, suggests Viezel, who was talking by phone fresh from a drive to Caesarea where she picked up a Corinthian marble pillar capital from someone’s garden.

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Rare bronze engraving with lion’s faceCredit: Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority
One sunny day in Emek Hefer

Such is Israel. Mi’ilya is a hilltop village in northern Israel with a Crusader castle looming on the peak and Byzantine ruins beneath the houses. This village excavated itself, with the help of their hometown professional archaeologist Rabei Khamisy (accredited and armed with all the requisite permits). In one house, one room is a bedroom and the other is the nave of a 1,500-year-old basilica.

A family in Jerusalem found a mikveh from the Second Temple period below their living room. A man swimming in the Mediterranean after a storm roiled the seabed spotted an ancient Roman shipwreck (again). A farmer planting an olive tree in Gaza found a Byzantine mosaic. And when earthworks begin… A whole Neolithic city from 9,000 years ago was found by Jerusalem thanks to infrastructure works, to name one instance.

It’s good for a good citizen to return stolen antiquities, and the more the merrier – but the great thing is if they can say where an item came from, Viezel points out. A farmer noticed that he turned up ancient coins while sowing, switched off the machine, called in the authorities and, presto, rooting around they found an unknown archaeological site of “absolutely insane” significance, Viezel shares. Where is it? She won’t share that detail so it doesn’t get looted.

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Giant mortar made of stoneCredit: Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority
“One guy found a huge basalt mortar, half a meter in diameter, complete with the pestle in a field,” she says. “He also found a mosaic tessera.” So? So, the tile indicates there’s a mosaic in the area, she explains.

Among the more unusual artifacts to be returned was an over-1,700-year-old anchor, found in 1996 by a diver named Moshe swimming off the site of the ancient city of Yavne-Yam. He cleaned off the encrustations, realized what it was and, in June, the anchor reached its rightful owner: the state.

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Archaeologist Marwan Masarwah holding the anchorCredit: Yoli Schwartz, IAA
What if you find relics beneath your home or pea plants? Do not excavate yourself. That’s illegal. Note that a “building permit” is not an excavation permit, and that in Israel damaging an archaeological site is a crime that can win the perp up to five years in prison.

Ganor points out that enthusiastic amateurs may unwittingly wreak terrible damage. “Sometimes a layer of soil a few inches thick may contain information from centuries of human history at the site,” he says.

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Extraordinary examples of regained pottery from different periods of antiquityCredit: Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities
Also, the dream of gaining riches from finding ancient gold coins using your handy-dandy metal detector is dead, or should be. Found anything? Turn it in, that’s the law. You may be awarded a good citizenship certificate.

Meanwhile, robbery continues apace – and some shameless thieves even come equipped with heavy machinery. “Piles of dirt and pottery sherds from zealous looting dot the grassy hills,” Andrew Califf reported in Haaretz from the field in 2022.

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Recovered ancient artisanal beadCredit: Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority
The IAA does all it can to foil the criminals but just this May cops pulled over a driver and found boxes of ancient Roman tiles in his trunk. They were about 2,000 years old and not just any Roman tiles but ones bearing the stamp of the terrifying Legio X Fretensis: the 10th Legion.

The tiles had been dug up recently, possibly from a bathhouse where the warriors – who worked hard to quell the First Jewish Revolt, including with the help of huge ballista stones – would wash off the sweat of battle. The Jews lost.

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