Photo Credit: Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority
One of the ancient sarcophagi lifted by crane, Feb. 16, 2021.

An extraordinary discovery was made during the construction of a new wildlife hospital at the Ramat Gan Safari Park last week – two unique sarcophagi (ancient stone coffins), were found in the earthworks.

An injured Imperial Eagle being treated in the veterinary hospital at the Safari in Ramat Gan (archive). / Tomer Neuberg/Flash90

The new hospital complex, designed to provide advanced veterinary services for birds and mammals, includes a specialized operating theater and a large bird nursery that will provide quiet, heated housing for the frequent feeds needed during the chick-rearing seasons. When work on the new facility began a few days ago, Rami Tam, head of the African savanna zone, noticed two coffins jutting out of the soil.

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Tam called animal health and management director Shmulik Yedvab, who contacted Alon Klein and Uzi Rothstein at the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Theft Prevention Unit. The inspectors were astonished to see the sarcophagi in the middle of Israel’s biggest zoo. After a thorough examination, they confirmed the unique find’s age.

Alon Klein and Uzi Rothstein of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Theft Prevention Unit, Feb. 16, 2021. / Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority

Veteran Safari workers present at the time recalled that the sarcophagi had been found years ago in the zoo’s parking lot. They were moved to a location near the veterinary clinic and the African savanna zone, but over the years were forgotten and were reburied under sand and thick vegetation.

Based on the stones and their ornate decoration, the sarcophagi are thought to have been intended for people of high status. According to Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists, the sarcophagi are roughly 1,800 years old and date from the Roman period. They are ornamented with symbolic discs – to protect and accompany the soul on its journey to the afterlife – and flower garlands, often used to decorate sarcophagi in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Between the garlands are oval blanks, which the archaeologists believe were originally intended to be filled with a customary grape-cluster motif, but for some unknown reason, the work remained unfinished.

The sarcophagi, made of local stone – probably from the Judaean Hills or Samaria – are locally-produced imitations of the prestigious sarcophagi made of Proconnesian marble from the Turkish island of Marmara.

The ‘Grande Ludovisi’ sarcophagus, with battle scene between Roman soldiers and German barbarians (251 CE) carved in Proconnesus marble. / Jastrow (2006) via Wikimedia

In ancient times the island was called Proikonesos or Prokonnesos, Latinized as Proconnesus. The modern name “Marmara” is derived from the Greek mármaros—crystalline rock, or shining stone because it was famous for the white marble quarried there. Proconnesian marble is used extensively in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and exclusively in the Herculean Sarcophagus of Genzano now in the British Museum. It was also used in the Basilica of Maxentius in the Roman Forum. To date, marble remains the island’s primary export.

Both sarcophagi about to be shipped from the zoo to the IAA treasure repository, Feb. 16, 2021. / Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority

Found together, the two sarcophagi bear identical ornamentation and they may have been made for a husband and wife. The exact provenance of the sarcophagi is unknown, but they were probably buried near the site of ancient Bnei Brak in the Roman period.

The wealthy owners of the sarcophagi, buried with their personal artifacts, had no idea that the coffins would find a place of honor alongside giraffes, elephants, and a bird nursery. Last Tuesday, their sarcophagi were transferred to their rightful location in the Israeli National Treasures repositories.

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David writes news at JewishPress.com.