(Photos: Elchanan Kotler)
There is no silver or gold here, just his bones and the bones of his wife. Cursed be the man who will open this!”
If the author of this inscription, a high-ranking official of the Kingdom of Judea, thought his curse would scare away looters, he was sadly mistaken. Already by the Byzantine period, the man’s tomb, located in Jerusalem’s Kidron Valley, had been damaged beyond recognition. When French archaeologist Charles Clermont-Ganneau turned up in 1870, he added insult to injury by removing the inscription and selling it to the British Museum.
For Clermont-Ganneau it was business as usual. During those early days of railroad and steamship travel, the world opened to Western scientific explorers. It also enabled them to ship back to Europe priceless antiquities they had excavated at an archaeological site, before local villagers dug them up first and sold them to antiquities dealers or tourists.
Almost 150 years later, only one thing has changed: Today’s archaeologists can no longer do what they please with the artifacts they find. In most countries, excavations are regulated by government authorities, and international law forbids the illegal transfer and selling of antiquities.
But looters have never paid too much attention to laws, and with today’s high-speed communications technology — not to mention airplane travel — it’s never been easier to be one. An antiquity can be dug up on Monday, flown out of the country on Tuesday, and be in a buyer’s home by the end of the week. Even if the authorities do ever learn about the theft, there’s no guarantee the object will be recovered.
Antiquities looting is therefore big business. While it’s hard to get accurate numbers about how many sites have been looted around the world and how much the stolen goods are worth, a recent exhibition at Jerusalem’s Bible Lands Museum, Finds Gone Astray, gives an idea of the scope of the problem.
According to the Israeli Civil Administration in Yehuda and Shomron, its Archaeology Unit has located and seized some 40,000 stolen artifacts since 1967, when Israel took control of the area after the Six Day War. Some of the artifacts were stolen from sites in Yehuda and Shomron, and some were smuggled into the area from Syria or Iraq. As for how many thefts escaped detection, we’ll never know.
But according to the curator of the museum’s exhibition, Yehuda Kaplan, the looted “goodies” are just one side of the proverbial — and in this case stolen — coin.
Even while the exhibition was being installed, yet another looting job was taking place — this time in Huqoq, located in the Galil, near the Kinneret.
Huqoq is mentioned in the Talmud as a place where the Sages would gather to learn Torah. In 2011, archaeologist Jodi Magness discovered a synagogue dating back to the 5th century CE. Subsequent excavations revealed a mosaic floor rich in artistic treasures: elaborate depictions of Noah’s Ark, the Tower of Babel, the Parting of the Red Sea, Yonah and the whale, and other scenes from Tanach.
Because Huqoq is located within Israel’s pre-1967 borders, the site is administrated by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). And because of the site’s historical importance, it’s regularly inspected by the IAA’s Theft Prevention Unit — which was bad news for the three looters who were digging for ancient coins, with the help of a metal detector, in late December. Thanks to the swift response of an IAA team, accompanied by representatives from the Border Police, the thieves were caught red-handed, with the stolen coins still stuffed in their pockets.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 747)