Photo Credit: Yuli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority
Inspectors of the Israel Antiquities Authority's Robbery Prevention Unit with the sarcophagi that were uncovered in the Kafr Kanna cave.

A burial cave with decorated sarcophagi that were used for the secondary burial of Jews about 1,850 years ago, shortly after the Bar Kochba revolt that devastated the Jewish community in Israel, was discovered in an operation in the Galilee, conducted by Kafr Kanna police and the robbery prevention unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Kafr Kanna police officers and IAA inspectors arrived at a private empty lot in the Mashhad Regional Council, where, to their astonishment, they saw that extensive infrastructure works using heavy engineering tools had been done there, which threatened to completely destroy an ancient burial cave at the site. All that remained of the cave was a single burial mound.

A sarcophagus that was discovered in the Kafr Kanna cave. / Nir Distelfeld, Israel Antiquities Authority Robbery Prevention Unit

The IAA inspectors noticed piles of dirt on the lot, which appeared to be hiding something. The lot’s owner was asked to remove them, revealing an ancient burial cave, hewn in the bedrock, with nine burial mounds inside. The surprised inspectors found three decorated stone sarcophagi at the entrance to the cave, which were used in ancient times to store human bones. The sarcophagi were empty and looked out of place, which led the inspectors to suspect that the cave had been robbed of its antiquities recently.

Construction work at the site was stopped, and several suspects were summoned for questioning at the police station on suspicion of damaging antiquities and failing to report the discovery of antiquities. At the same time, the IAA inspectors documented and removed the ancient findings, for fear of more robbery and destruction.

A clay candle that was found in the Kafr Kanna burial cave. / Yuli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

Dr. Eitan Klein, Deputy Director of the IAA Robbery Prevention Unit, explained: “The rectangular sarcophagi are made of soft limestone, and have flat lids that were adapted to the original cabinet. The decorated coffins were used by the Jewish population in Galilee during the 2nd century CE. They are adorned by carved images related to Jewish burial and influenced by Greek culture. On top of one sarcophagus appears the model of a mausoleum, and on the other side a circular wreath was carved, with holes drilled into it, which probably symbolizes the victory of the deceased over death.”

“These models are very typical of stone sarcophagi used by the Jews of Galilee in the Middle Roman period,” Dr. Klein continued. “Similar decoration models were discovered on stone sarcophagi from the Tzipori site. In Israel, stone sarcophagi are accepted as an exclusive feature of Jewish burial in the final years of the Second Temple, from the 1st century BCE through the Bar Kochba revolt era, in the 2nd century CE. Sarcophagi burials were common during this period in the Jerusalem area, the mountains, and the Judean lowlands, and the bulk of the production of these sarcophagi was done in factories that operated in the Jerusalem and lowlands area. This burial custom became common in Galilee following the failure of the Bar Kochva rebellion and the arrival of Judean lowlands Jews in Galilee. Discovering the decorated stone sarcophagi in the cave in Kafr Kanna indicates the existence of a Jewish settlement there in the 2nd century CE.”

The finds that were discovered in the Kafr Kanna burial cave. / Yuli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

Amir Ganor, Director of the IAA Robbery Prevention Unit, noted that “in the current case, serious damage to the antiquities is suspected. The diggers completely destroyed an ancient burial cave, and were, allegedly, in the midst of looting another burial cave. We will never know what the destroyed cave looked like, or what was inside it and disappeared. Cultural assets that are almost 2,000 years old have been lost forever. Thanks to the vigilance of the Kafr Kana police, and their successful cooperation with the IAA, one of the caves was spared. As a result, we will now be able to save, if only partially, archaeological and historical information about the site and the ancient settlement.”

Damaging antiquities is a criminal offense in Israel, punishable by five years in prison. There is a legal obligation to report to the Israel Antiquities Authority any find of antiquities.


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