Authorities in Israel Seize Thousands of Artifacts Looted From Ancient Graves

Thieves stole most of the objects—including coins and pottery—from tombs across the Mediterranean, Africa and South America

Roman Statues
Authorities recovered thousands of ancient artifacts, including these stone Roman statues. Courtesy of Israel Antiques Authority via Facebook

Investigators in Israel have recovered a trove of thousands of stolen archaeological artifacts, including gold coins, jewelry, Egyptian sarcophagus lids, bronze statues, clay vessels and votive objects.

According to a Facebook post from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), which located the items in partnership with the Israeli police and tax authority, the operation was “one of the largest” of its kind in Israel’s history.

Officials seized the artifacts, which span the 1st millennium B.C. through the 11th century A.D., during raids at three sites in central Israel, reports Aryeh Savir for the Tazpit News Agency.

Archaeologists involved in the operation were “stunned at the sheer quantity, and quality, of the artifacts,” writes Ruth Schuster for Haaretz.

“We haven’t counted them yet,” Amir Ganor, head of the IAA’s theft prevention unit, tells Haaretz. “… We made lists. It’s a gargantuan find—hundreds of coins, pottery from a lot of periods, statues and bronze items, stone items and glass as well.”

Authorities arrested three suspects—antiquities dealers, not the thieves themselves—and expect to take more people into custody as the investigation continues.

Looters likely stole most of the museum-quality relics from graves across Israel, the Mediterranean region, Africa and South America, per the IAA statement. Such acts of theft are nothing new: As Joshua J. Mark pointed out in a 2017 Ancient History Encyclopedia article, tomb robbers stole grave goods from the pyramids at Giza and Djoser, among other sites, shortly after their construction. The practice has continued—in varying forms—ever since.

Ganor speculates that the stash may have ended up in Israel because it is one of the only countries in the Mediterranean basin that allows antiques merchants to obtain a license to sell goods. If a seller wants to pawn off illegally acquired artifacts, they can use a licensed dealer as an intermediary and conduct business without arousing suspicion.

Vessels seized during the January 4 raids Courtesy of the Israel Antiques Authority via Facebook
Glass artifact recovered during the raid Courtesy of the Israel Antiques Authority via Facebook
The team recovered a number of black- and red-figure vases from ancient Greece and Rome. Courtesy of the Israel Antiques Authority via Facebook
Authorities also found hundreds of coins, including some from the Seleucid Empire. Courtesy of the Israel Antiques Authority via Facebook

Among the artifacts recovered are pieces of pottery, including rare black- and red-figure vases made in Greece and Italy during the fifth and sixth centuries B.C. The clay vessels depict people and animals engaged in quotidian tasks, offering a glimpse of everyday life in the ancient world. As the Metropolitan Museum of Art noted in a 2002 essay, these kinds of colorful designs were reserved for fine pottery. Plainer wares, meanwhile, were used for everyday chores.

Ganor tells Haaretz that he suspects some of the pots were restored by underground experts, as “one almost never finds clay vessels complete in the ground.”

He adds, “These items were usually found in tombs. We found hundreds of them. These are extremely precious items because of their manufacturing technique.”

Other highlights of the discovery, according to Live Science’s Stephanie Pappas, include coins from the Seleucid Empire, which ruled Israel between 312 and 63 B.C.; Roman-era oil lamps; and stone statuettes of gods.

Authorities also uncovered hundreds of wooden African masks but did not confiscate them due to questions about their age. The theft prevention unit primarily focuses on items produced before 1700 A.D.

Officials are now studying each artifact individually and sending photos of the objects to international law enforcement agencies, including Interpol.

Speaking with the Tazpit News Agency, Ganor says, “[A]n archeological find that is detached from its archaeological context by antiquities robbers and sold for the greed of money, in fact [has] created a black hole in history, and we are working to prevent this in every way.”