Israel and Palestinian Authority Arabs were caught red-handed a last Friday in the process of stealing 11 ancient coffins from a magnificent ancient burial cave in the Jerusalem region and which the Jewish population used for burial in the Second Temple period.
Some of the ossuaries, chests that were frequently used for re-burial where space was scarce, still contained the skeletal remains of the deceased.
Israel Antiquities Authority detectives and police arrested several suspects early Friday morning, and the arrest were kept under was until Monday morning,
The suspects are residents of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the Arab village of Abadiyah, in the vicinity of Bethlehem and were caught as they were closing a deal to sell the ossuaries to Jewish merchants, near the Hizma checkpoint north of Jerusalem.
It is suspected the ossuaries were recently looted from an ancient burial cave in the region of Jerusalem.
The Jewish population used stone ossuaries for secondary burial during the Second Temple period and they were very common from the second century BCE until the first century CE. The ossuaries are decorated with typical Jewish symbols, among them the lily flower, the six-petal rosette and other symbols. The decorations adorning the ossuaries were a major element of the Jewish art of the period.
Shallow engravings, etched in the past by means of a sharp stylus, were found on the walls of two of the seized ossuaries. They cite the names of the deceased whose bones were collected in the coffins. One of the engraved ossuaries that were found bore the name “Ralfin,” written in squared Hebrew script characteristic of the Second Temple period.
This name is apparently a Hebraized form of an unusual Roman name. “This is the first time this name appears on an ossuary from the Land of Israel,” according to Dr. Eitan Klein, deputy director of the Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery, who examined the ossuaries.
On the other ossuary is a Greek inscription that could not be deciphered, and below it the name “Yo‘azar”, in squared Hebrew script. 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.
Some of the ossuaries were engraved with inscriptions in squared Hebrew script, characteristic of the Second Temple period and some bore Greek inscriptions, including the names of the deceased.
“These are singular finds,” Dr. Klein said. “The inscriptions on the ossuaries provide us with additional characters and names from amongst the Jewish population in the Second Temple period, and the motifs adorning the ossuaries will supplement our knowledge with new information about the world of Jewish art in this period.
“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 Israel Antiquities Authority reports that the bones found inside the ossuaries will be turned over to the Ministry of Religious Affairs for burial.
Antiquities robbery is a serious offense punishable by five years in jail, and the unlicensed trafficking in antiquities is a criminal offense punishable by law by a prison sentence of three years.