Israel seizes ancient burial boxes offering clues to past

Thieves stole containers from a cave near Jerusalem with intent to sell them to collectors

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 April, 2014, 8:50pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 April, 2014, 4:41am

Israeli authorities have unveiled 11 ancient burial boxes dating to around the time of Jesus, recovered by police during a midnight raid on antiquities dealers suspected of stealing the artefacts.

The boxes include a pair of ossuaries believed to contain the remains of two noblemen who lived in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.

Some are engraved with designs and even names, giving clues to their origin and contents. The boxes contain bone fragments and remnants of what experts say is pottery buried with the deceased.

Israel's Antiquities Authority said on Monday that the boxes were recovered last Friday, shortly after midnight, when police observed two cars parked suspiciously at a military checkpoint on the outskirts of Jerusalem. When they investigated, they found four people involved in an exchange of the boxes. Once police recovered the items, they alerted the authority.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the boxes were "stolen from a cave" near Jerusalem with the intent of being sold to collectors.

According to Israeli antiquities law, all antiquities that are discovered are considered property of the state.

Two of the suspects remained in custody on Monday, and the others were under house arrest, according to the authority.

The boxes, known as ossuaries, are believed to date back to the Second Temple period, a time stretching from roughly 515BC to AD70 that included the reign of King Herod, who built some of the most famous sites in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, and the time of Jesus.

Not unlike today, the Jerusalem of the time was a place of religious divisions, multiple languages and a diverse economy.

According to common Jewish burial practices of the time, the deceased were not buried but laid out in a cave for one year. Afterward, the bones were gathered and stored in the boxes.

"It's kind of like where the deceased go to retire," said Stephen Pfann, president of the University of the Holy Land. Pfann noted that the use of these burial boxes developed at the time partly to condense the space needed once the corpse had turned to bones and partly because of the difficulty of finding space for a tomb in Jerusalem's hard bedrock.

Some of the newly recovered boxes feature elaborate engravings, indicating wealth and a high social status of the deceased.

The boxes are not especially rare. The Antiquities Authority already has in its possession over 1,000 of them. The authority's deputy director Eitan Klein estimated their value to be in the thousands of dollars.


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