A unique and extremely impressive stone sarcophagus approximately 1,800 years old has been exposed at a building site in a new neighborhood being built in Ashkelon.
This occurred during an overnight operation between Tuesday and Wednesday carried out by inspectors of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery, the Southern District of the IAA, and patrol officers and detectives from the Ashkelon police station.
The find is among the rarest sarcophagi ever discovered in Israel. The coffin, made of hard limestone, weighs approximately two tons, is 2.5 meters long, and is sculpted on all sides. A life-size figure of a person is carved on the lid of the sarcophagus.
A wreath coming out of the upper edge of the sarcophagus, which is decorated with bulls’ heads. The wreath consists of acanthus leaves together with pinecones and fruit. A grape cluster is in the center of the wreath, and a rose-like decoration is also displayed in it.
The unique artifact was repeatedly struck by a tractor in different places, scarring the stone and damaging the decorations sculpted by an artist on its sides. The irreparable damage was caused by the contractors who encountered the impressive sarcophagus during the course of their work.
They decided to hide it, pulling it out of the ground with a tractor while aggressively damaging it, and then concealing it beneath a stack of sheet metal and boards. They poured a concrete floor in the lot so as to conceal any evidence of the existence of the antiquities site.
Information received by the IAA’s Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery about unlawful activities at the construction site led to a nighttime search being conducted in the area. A close examination of the area revealed the sarcophagus and the lid concealed there.
The sarcophagus lid and the sarcophagus during the initial cleaning.
Five Palestinian Arab construction workers from the Hebron area were detained who were sleeping at the building site. During investigation of the laborers at the Ashkelon police station, it became clear that the sarcophagus was excavated last week. When questioned, they showed the investigators photos and videos taken at the time of the sarcophagus’ discovery and while removing it from the ground.
Later that night, two building contractors were detained who are residents of the city and were responsible for the construction work at the site. The contractors were questioned under caution on suspicion of not reporting an ancient discovery and on suspicion of damaging an antiquities site and its artifacts – an offense punishable by five years imprisonment.
“This is an extremely serious case of damage to a rare antiquity of unprecedented artistic, historical and cultural importance,” said Amir Ganor, head of the Inspection Department at the Israel Antiquities Authority.
“The IAA is attentive to development needs and the needs of the public, but will strictly enforce the law against those who knowingly damage antiquities, which are assets belonging to us all.
“Out of consideration for the owners of the lots, we permitted building in the new neighborhood of villas, on condition they would report any discovery of antiquities in the area right away and immediately halt work until the arrival of our representative.
Hana Levi Julian