Looted Artifacts Recovered From Car Trunk May Be Spoils of War Seized by Jewish Rebels Against Rome

Authorities in Jerusalem confiscated the stolen items, which included incense burners and coins and probably date to the Bar Kokhba revolt

Bronze Jug with Roman image
The artifacts, such as this bronze jug, are decorated with Roman religious symbols that ancient Jews would have considered idolatrous. Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority

Last week, police in Jerusalem seized dozens of ancient artifacts from the trunk of a car during a traffic stop. Now, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) says the objects may represent loot taken from Roman soldiers by Jewish rebels during the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132 to 135 C.E. 

Authorities discovered the items after stopping a vehicle driving in the wrong direction on a one-way street in Jerusalem’s Musrara neighborhood, reports Sharon Wrobel for the Algemeiner. Inside the trunk was a box filled with well-preserved artifacts. Researchers say the items were likely looted from a complex in the Judean foothills, where fighters took refuge during the revolt.

The cache contained ornate Roman objects, including a two 2,000-year-old bronze incense burners, a bronze jug depicting a Roman banquet, a decorated stone tripod bowl, clay lamps and hundreds of late Roman coins. According to a 2016 IAA statement, ancient bronze artifacts are rarely found today because people typically melted down items made from the valuable metal for reuse. Most bronze objects dated to antiquity survived because they were deliberately hidden or inadvertently preserved in shipwrecks.

hand holding large number of ancient coins
The seized objects included late Roman-era coins. Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority

As Luke Tress writes for the Times of Israel, the IAA suspects that a looter stole the artifacts from a Bar Kokhba–era hiding place on the Tarqumiya border of Israel’s southern West Bank. Authorities began surveilling the site after noticing signs of disturbance but failed to catch the suspected thieves.

“They left behind ancient finds similar to those now recovered in the suspects’ possession when they fled,” says Amir Ganor, director of the IAA Robbery Prevention Unit, in a separate statement. “We believe that the recently recovered finds in Jerusalem were taken from this site.”

After confiscating the items, police arrested three people in connection with the theft, reports the Jerusalem Post.

Per Encyclopedia Britannica, the revolt, named for its leader, Simeon Bar Kokhba, began in 132 C.E. after years of skirmishes between Jews and Romans in Judea. When Roman Emperor Hadrian cracked down on Jewish religious observances and announced plans to found a Roman colony on the site of Jerusalem, Bar Kokhba led a military uprising. The rebels were soon crushed by forces under the command of Roman general Julius Severus, and Jews were banned from Jerusalem.

researchers with artifacts
The Israel Antiquities Authority hopes to further study the artifacts after the investigation is complete. Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority

During the rebellion, Jewish fighters used numerous caves, mainly in the Judean foothills, as hideouts. They stockpiled weapons and food, enabling them to carry out guerilla attacks on Roman forces.

Per a separate Jerusalem Post report, archaeologists cited several reasons for identifying the recovered artifacts as spoils of war. Because the objects were decorated with figures and Roman religious symbols that ancient Jews considered idol worship, the rebels would not have used them. Had they wanted to use the items, they would have defaced the figures first. Additionally, Jews at the time would not have conducted rites involving the burning of incense, as this practice ended with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.

“These ancient finds embody the country’s history, but they are merely a commodity, sold to the highest bidder for pure greed for robbers and dealers,” says IAA Director Eli Eskozido in the statement. “It is tremendously important to prevent any attempts to deal in illegal antiquities, recover valuable finds, and return them to the public and the state.”

After legal proceedings against the suspects conclude, adds Eskozido, the IAA will ask the court to confiscate the artifacts and turn them over for conservation and further research.

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