Israeli Authorities Retrieve 1,850-Year-Old Decorated Stone Ossuaries to Prevent Further Looting and Damage

Three 1,850-year-old stone ossuaries were unearthed and removed for safekeeping by the Kafr Kanna police and the Israel Antiquities Authority Theft Prevention Unit near the village Mashhad, south of Kafr Kanna in Galilee, Israel, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced Monday.

Private construction work on a lot in the area drew the attention of Israel Antiquities Authority inspectors, who found that bulldozers had completely destroyed an ancient burial cave, leaving only a burial mound. They also discovered several suspicious piles of earth. Removing them revealed an ancient rock-hewn Roman burial cave with nine niches that the construction had badly damaged.

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The archaeological site in Tiel where the ancient sanctuary was discovered.

They retrieved three fully decorated stone ossuaries, along with ossuary fragments. The small rectangular burial chests were carved in soft limestone and topped with flat lids. Incised on the side of one of the ossuaries was a burial structure with a mausoleum in Greek or a “nefesh” in Hebrew. Another depicted a circular wreath with holes, which some believe symbolize victory over death.

The ossuaries would have been used for a secondary burial of human bones collected after the flesh rotted away. This practice was customary among the Jewish community in Galilee from roughly the first century BCE through the second century CE.

These ossuaries, however, were found empty and had been moved from their original placement, suggesting that the cave had been looted.

Construction work at the site was stopped while Israel Antiquities Authority inspectors documented the site and collected the finds to prevent further looting, and police questioned several people.

“The original details of the destroyed cave cannot be reconstructed, and almost two-thousand-year-old cultural assets are lost forever. Thanks to the vigilance and determination of the Kafr Kanna Police, and the successful cooperation with the Israel Antiquities Authority, one of the caves was mostly saved,” said Amir Ganor, director of the Theft Prevention Unit at the Israel Antiquities Authority.

While one cave sustained serious damage, the other was looted. Damaging or failing to report finding antiquities is a criminal offense in Israel, punishable by law with up to five years of imprisonment, though most judges hand down monetary fines.

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