A model temple with a bull's head inside, Bronze Age pottery and Byzantine lamps — all were looted somewhere in the West Bank, all were recovered by the authorities, and are all now on display at the Bible Lands Museum in the first-ever exhibition of stolen antiquities in Israel.
The exhibit is small: only about 20 artifacts are actually being shown out of the roughly 40,000 recovered since 1967 from organized looting gangs, smugglers, innocent people who happen across items and so on.
About half the recovered items are coins, and the rest are mostly vessels and utensils made of stone, metal and ceramic.
The problem with looted antiquities, beyond the affront to civilization, is that we cannot know for sure where they came from. They cannot be dated with any kind of credibility, and not knowing an artifact's provenance means that it's much harder to prove it is genuine.
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For instance, finding a seal impression marked "Hezekiah" is one thing if discovered beneath the thief's bed, and another if found in situ in Jerusalem, where the Judean king is believed to have lived and ruled, in the appropriate archaeological layer. It really doesn't help for the thief to protest that's where it was found — go prove it.
That said, the artifacts on display since Sunday are all believed to be genuine.
Finds 'gone astray'
Archaeology in the West Bank is managed by an archaeologist working for the Civil Administration, who fulfills the role of the Antiquities Authority in the territories. His job includes confiscating stolen archaeological artifacts.
Recently the current West Bank archaeologist, Hanania Hizmi, decided to produce a catalog of what he calls “finds gone astray” describing the important items and including academic articles about them. So far one volume of a planned four has been published.
Another treasure in the exhibit is six incantation bowls. These feature inscriptions in both Hebrew and Aramaic and were believed, around 1,500 years ago, to have supernatural powers.
Some of these bowls may not be from the West Bank itself but may have been smuggled from Iraq, experts say, originating in the devastation wreaked by ISIS as it swept over Syria and Iraq.
Despite the lurid video clips of ISIS fighters destroying pre-Islamic archaeological sites, their conquests spurred a tidal wave of smuggling, and precious archeological artifacts from ISIS-occupied sites flooded the Middle East. Some were smuggled through Jordan to the West Bank and thence to antiquities dealers in Jerusalem and around the world. En route, many were caught by the Israeli authorities.
Cops and robbers
The issue of provenance, and hence dubiety about the authenticity of items, explains why museums do not normally exhibit looted ancient artifacts. But Hizmi and the curators of the exhibition are convinced that all the findings are authentic, based on similarity to items that were excavated properly.
Maybe. Not all are convinced. “This is an exhibit without a story, since no one knows where these artifacts came from," says Yoni Mizrahi, an archaeologist with the archaeological organization Emek Shaveh. "The story here is that there are robbers and there are those who catch them, the good guys and the bad guys; this is not an archaeological exhibition, it’s Hasamba," referring to children’s adventure stories in Hebrew about kids who help the Haganah against Israel’s enemies.
Critics of the exhibition also point out that according to the Hague Convention, an occupying military force may not excavate antiquities in the occupied area and certainly may not display the findings outside the occupied territory. The expo is being held in Jerusalem, not the West Bank. But Hizmi and museum officials explain that the items weren't "moved" beyond their original territory, they have been loaned. It's just like countries may lend each other items of value for display.
Mizrahi points out that under the Hague Convention, one must not excavate and if one does, it must be only for the benefit of the local residents, and the findings must remain accessible to them.
“These findings don’t belong to us yet. Make a peace agreement in which it is decided whom they belong to and then display them," Mizrahi says.
Leora Berry, deputy director of the Bible Lands Museum, said, “As a state we have a responsibility to deal with these findings, maintain them and when the time comes, if necessary, to hand them over. Meanwhile they have importance, even if we don’t know everything about them.”
Politicians attending the exhibition’s opening, at least in spirit, clearly view it as a political matter. Culture Minister Miri Regev sent a video address in which she said the exhibition’s importance is to “expose the historical connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and Judea and Samaria.”
“Archaeology reveals how much this country is our home,” Ben Dahan said, and added that Palestinian antiquities thieves “rob and destroy in order to disconnect us from our land.” Even though most of the artifacts on display are from non-Jewish cultures, including the lamps decorated with crosses, pagan idols and a figurine of a naked woman.