Early Friday morning (March 28), in a joint operation between the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery and Israeli security forces, several suspects were arrested for illegally possessing ancient antiquities.
The suspects were caught while in the possession of 11 decorated ancient coffins, or stone ossuaries. The coffins were used by the Jewish community of the Second Temple period some 2,000 years ago. Several of the ossuaries contained the skeletal remains of the deceased.
According to a statement from the IAA, the suspects were “caught red-handed by a team of patrolmen and detectives…when they were closing a deal to sell the ossuaries to Jewish merchants, near the Hizma checkpoint north of Jerusalem.”
The suspects are residents of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and the Arab village of Abadiyah near Bethlehem. Antiquities robbery is punishable by five years in prison and unlicensed trafficking in antiquities is punishable by three years in prison.
IAA investigators believe that the ossuaries were recently looted from an ancient burial cave near Jerusalem.
Historically, the use of ossuaries by Jews during the Second Temple period was very common from the second century BCE to the first century CE. According to the IAA, the Jews used the stone ossuaries for secondary burial. The coffins bear decorations of typical Jewish symbols, including lily flowers and six-petal rosettes. The statement explained that “the decorations adorning the ossuaries were a major element of the Jewish art of the period.”
Some of the ossuaries have engraved inscriptions in squared Hebrew text or Greek inscriptions, including the names of the deceased.
On the walls of two of the ossuaries are shallow engravings that were carved using a sharp stylus. The engravings bear the names of the deceased inside the coffins. One name, “Ralfin,” was “written in squared Hebrew script characteristic of the Second Temple period.”
The name is unique in that it is a “Hebraized” form of a Roman name. Dr. Eitan Klein, deputy director of the Unit for Prevention of Antiquities Robbery, said, “This is the first time this name appears on an ossuary from the Land of Israel.”
On a second ossuary appeared an undecipherable Greek inscription with the name “Yo’azar” below written in squared Hebrew script. The IAA noted that “the name Yo’azar is a common Jewish name in the Second Temple period, and occurs in contemporary written sources, such as Josephus’ writings. The name appears in this form and a slightly different form – ‘Yeho’azar’ – on numerous Jewish ossuaries from this period.”
Dr. Klein characterized the ossuaries as “singular finds” in that “the inscriptions on the ossuaries provide us with additional characters and names from amongst the Jewish population in the Second temple period.”
“The motifs adorning the ossuaries will supplement our knowledge with new information about the world of Jewish art in this period,” he added.
Commenting on the burial ground from which the ossuaries were looted, Dr. Klein stated, “There is no doubt that the ossuaries were recently looted from a magnificent burial cave in Jerusalem. Remnants of paint remained on top of the ossuaries and the containers themselves belong to the group of ‘magnificent Jerusalem’ ossuaries that were manufactured in the city in antiquity.”
The IAA is planning on turning over the remains found inside the ossuaries to the Ministry of Religious Affairs for burial.