What were ornamental bronze incense burners and a wine server doing in a hiding complex dating from the Bar Kokhba Revolt in the Judean foothills? Israel Antiquities Authority investigators suspect that the remarkable archaeological finds seized by Lev HaBira police from antiquities dealers last week are actually battle spoils captured from Roman soldiers by Bar Kokhba rebels.
On routine patrol in the Musrara neighborhood last week, detectives from the Lev HaBira police station in Jerusalem noticed a vehicle driving in the wrong direction up a one-way street. The vehicle looked suspicious, so the detectives stopped and searched it. They were amazed to find a box in the trunk containing amazing and unusual archaeological finds.
Inspectors from the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Antiquities Robbery Prevention Unit were called to the police station and immediately realized that the remarkably well-preserved finds date from the Roman period. They include two ornate 2,000-year-old bronze censers that were used to burn ritual incense and probably belonged to affluent Roman houses and temples. A bronze jug for serving wine was also recovered. The vessel bears a depiction of a Roman banqueting scene showing a reclining figure holding a jug of wine. Other illicit finds include an ornate stone tripod bowl, Roman clay lamps, and hundreds of coins dating from the Late Roman period (second-third centuries CE).
Bronze artifacts are relatively rare finds in Israel since then, as now, metal was an expensive commodity and was usually melted down for reuse. Such finds are generally recovered from archaeological sites where they were deliberately concealed, or in hiding complexes where they were left after being taken in battle during the Bar Kokhba Revolt.
The discovery of the finds prompted the Israel Antiquities Authority to launch a criminal investigation against the three suspects from the vehicle. The inquiry reinforced suspicions that the items were brought to Jerusalem with the aim of selling them to an antiquities dealer. The Robbery Prevention Unit believes that the ancient items were taken from a hiding complex dating from the Bar Kokhba Revolt that has been under surveillance in recent months.
The unit explains that the items were spoils seized by Bar Kokhba rebels, but they were not used by the Jewish fighters themselves since they are typical Roman cult artifacts and are decorated with figures and pagan symbols (thus violating the Jewish prohibition of idolatry). Furthermore, by the time of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, the Temple had been destroyed and the Jewish rites of offering sacrifices and burning incense were no longer practiced. If the Jewish fighters wanted to use such artifacts, they would deface the figures to prevent idolatry.According to Amir Ganor, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority Robbery Prevention Unit, “We recently identified unauthorized archaeological excavations at a site from the time of the Bar Kokhba Revolt located near the Tarqumiya border crossing. The information was passed on to the IDF and the Archaeology Department of the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria. They launched an operation in an attempt to capture suspects, but unfortunately, the robbers managed to escape. When they fled, they left behind ancient finds that are similar to those now recovered in the suspects’ possession. We believe that the finds that were recently recovered in Jerusalem were taken from this site.” Ganor adds, “I would like to commend the actions of the detectives from Lev HaBira police station in Jerusalem, whose vigilance led to the finds’ recovery and the success of the investigation, thus thwarting the attempted sale of unique antiquities in this instance.”
The director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Eli Eskozido, said “The Israel Antiquities Authority is working day and night to combat illicit excavations at antiquities sites around the country, in cooperation with the Israel Police and other law enforcement agencies. These ancient finds embody the country’s history, but for robbers and dealers, they are merely a commodity, sold to the highest bidder for pure greed. It is tremendously important to prevent any attempts to deal in illegal antiquities, to recover valuable finds, and to return them to the public and the State. When legal proceedings against the suspects are complete, the Israel Antiquities Authority will ask the court to confiscate the finds and hand them to us for conservation and further research.”