Authorities probing theft find Roman-era burial cave

Coffins used by Jews during the period following the Bar Kochba revolt were found.

These Jewish coffins from the Roman Era were found in Mashhad in the Galilee. Photo by Nir Distelfeld/Israel Antiquities Authority.
These Jewish coffins from the Roman Era were found in Mashhad in the Galilee. Photo by Nir Distelfeld/Israel Antiquities Authority.

Coffins dating back to a Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire were recently uncovered in the Galilee of Israel by authorities investigating the theft of ancient artifacts.

The operation took place in Mashhad, near Nazareth, where a burial cave containing several intricately decorated stone coffins dating back approximately 1,850 years was found, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced on Tuesday.

These coffins, known as glosskamas, were used for the secondary burial of Jews during the period following the Bar Kochba revolt of 132-135 C.E.

Upon arriving at a private lot, Israeli Police and Antiquities Authority inspectors were astonished to discover extensive illegal infrastructure work being conducted, utilizing heavy engineering tools. The inspectors noticed several piles of earth, suggesting that something was hidden underneath. The landowner and the individual responsible for the construction site were requested to remove the soil, revealing an ancient burial cave hewn out of rock.

Inside the cave, the remains of nine burial mounds were discovered. At the entrance, the inspectors were surprised to find three decorated stone glosskamas, which had been used in ancient times to house human bones. These glosskamas were found empty and displaced from their original positions, leading to immediate suspicion that the cave had recently been targeted by antiquities thieves.

Construction work at the site was halted and several suspects were summoned for questioning at the police station on charges of damaging antiquities and failing to report the discovery of the ancient site. Simultaneously, the Antiquities Authority inspectors documented and removed the artifacts to prevent further theft.

Eitan Klein, deputy director of the Robbery Prevention Unit at the Antiquities Authority, explained that the glosskamas—rectangular coffins, crafted from soft limestone—featured flat lids specifically designed to fit the structure.

The coffins were adorned with carvings influenced by Greek culture, depicting models associated with Jewish burial customs. One coffin displayed a model resembling a mausoleum or a memorial hand called a nefesh, while the other had a circular wreath with drilled holes, symbolizing the triumph of the deceased over death.

Klein said these decorative motifs are typical of the stone glosskamas used by the Jewish population in the Galilee during the Middle Roman period. Similar decorations have been found on glosskamas and they are considered an exclusive feature of Jewish burials from the end of the Second Temple period until the Bar Kochba revolt in the second century C.E.

The presence of decorated stone glosskamas in the Mashhad cave indicates the existence of a Jewish settlement in the area during the second-third centuries C.E., following the Bar Kochba rebellion and the migration of Jewish communities from Judea to the Galilee.

Damaging antiquities is a criminal offense punishable by law with five years in prison, and there is a legal obligation to report any accidental find of an antiquities to the Antiquities Authority.

Amir Ganor, director of the Robbery Prevention Unit, said, “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 were lost forever.”

Mashhad is located on the site of Gath-hepher, an Israelite town mentioned in the Bible (2 Kings 14:25) as the home of Jonah. Locals point out his supposed tomb.

Israel has approximately 35,000 antiquities sites. “Each site is a world in its own right, which includes information on thousands of years of human history,” said Eli Escusido, director of the Antiquities Authority.

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