Construction at Israeli Safari Park Unearths 1,800-Year-Old Sarcophagi

First found 25 years ago, the limestone coffins—adorned with Greco-Roman symbols—were subsequently forgotten

Sarcophagus
The design is similar to marble sarcophagi found in what is now Marmara, Turkey. Israel Antiquities Authority

Workers building a new wing of the wildlife hospital at Ramat Gan Safari Park in Tel Aviv recently stumbled onto two 1,800-year-old sarcophagi. As it turns out, the huge stone coffins had been uncovered decades ago but were soon forgotten again.

“The original building contractor didn’t understand what they were,” Uzi Rotstein of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) tells Haaretz’s Ruth Schuster.

As the Times of Israel reports, workers first discovered the coffins while building a parking lot 25 years ago. The team then moved the sarcophagi to a different part of the site.

One of the coffins was apparently damaged during this initial discovery, leading someone to try to repair the damage using concrete. By the time the wildlife hospital project brought workers back to the area, the sarcophagi were covered in sand and vegetation.

Despite its location in a densely populated area just east of Tel Aviv, the park covers 250 acres and is mostly set up as a recreated natural space in which African animals roam freely while visitors explore by car or Segway. The park also contains a more traditional zoo.

The 6.5-foot-long coffins were crafted with limestone mined in nearby hills. Per a statement from the Friends of the Israel Antiquities Authority, their design echoes those of marble sarcophagi found in what’s now Marmara, Turkey. The coffins are decorated with flower garlands and discs—a religious symbol designed to protect the deceased in the afterlife—commonly used during the Greek and Roman periods. Also visible are blank ovals that would typically be filled with a grape-cluster motif but were apparently left unfinished.

Construction at Israeli Safari Park Unearths 1,800-Year-Old Sarcophagi
The identical coffins may have housed the remains of a husband and wife. Israel Antiquities Authority

These symbols’ presence indicates that the burial was not Jewish, according to Haaretz. But as Rossella Tercatin reports for the Jerusalem Post, the site where the coffins were found is near the location of the ancient Jewish city of Bnei Brak. That city was the site of a seder mentioned in the Passover Haggadah and is said to be connected to the Third Jewish Revolt against the Romans, led by Simon Bar Kokhba around the year 132 A.D.

The Roman-style coffins are from around the same period, but archaeologists are unsure whether they share any relationship with Bnei Brak.

“It could be that the sarcophagi are connected to the ancient city, it could be that they are not,” Rothstein tells the Post. “It is very rare to find sarcophagi in general and especially in their original site.”

The complicated decorations show that the people buried in the sarcophagi were probably of high status. Because the two coffins are nearly identical, the archaeologists suggest that they served as a final resting place for a husband and wife.

Given the size of the coffins, they were almost certainly used to bury entire bodies. In contrast, Haaratz notes, some local communities in ancient Israel followed a secondary burial practice in which the body was allowed to decay before the bones were placed in a vessel for final burial.

The archaeological team doesn’t yet know whether the coffins contain human remains, but the sarcophagi have been moved to an IAA site for additional study. In the meantime, construction on the new section of the animal hospital, which will provide advanced veterinary services for birds and mammals, is set to continue.