Three would-be tomb raiders in northern Israel were jailed last week for breaking into Galilee graves dating to biblical times, using a small bulldozer, no less.
The robbers were caught red-handed in the ancient biblical town of Mishkana, also known as Maskana, and were foiled before they could do too much damage to the graves, the antiquities authority said on Tuesday. The tombs could be as much as 1,900 years old.
Nazareth District Court last week sentenced one of the thieves to four months, another to six months and the third to nine months, and confiscated their JCB excavator forever.
“There are about 300 events of illegal excavation each year,” Nir Distelfeld, the Israel Antiquities Authority’s official for preventing robbery, told Haaretz. It’s hard to catch antiquities thieves in action because most of the sites are not only in the middle of nowhere, they’re not guarded." This time, he acknowledged, the authority got lucky and the thieves were caught before they could do too much damage. He also applauds the court's decision to sentence the thieves to prison, rather than to community service and a fine.
The site where the tombs were found is Horvat Mishkana – the ruins of a Galilean town that was certainly occupied at least from the Second Temple era, through the mishnaic and talmudic times.
Mishkana may well go back much further, even to prehistoric times (like many spots in Israel), but we don’t know yet: the town hasn’t yet been properly excavated, Distelfeld explained.
Mishkana is mentioned several times in the Talmud, albeit mainly in the context of being on the way between two big cities – Tiberias and Tzippori (aka Zippori or Sepphoris, which is famed for its surviving mosaics). In fact, the remains of a Roman road pass by it.
The burial tombs disturbed by the thieves apparently date from the late Roman to early Byzantine times, somewhere between the second and sixth centuries, the IAA said.
Mishkana is also known for contributing – by omission if not commission – to the end of the Crusader era in Israel.
Ahead of their fateful battle at Hattin in the baking heat of July 1187, the Crusader soldiers passed through nearby Zippori and refreshed themselves. But when they reached Mishkana and wanted more water, they discovered that the pool was dry.
The ensuing clash with the Muslim forces would not go well with the dehydrated Christian soldiers, who were crushed.
Almost 2,000 years later, in March 2017, five people from the Galilean village of Tur’an – three adults and two minors – went to nearby Mishkana, armed with their excavator, and began digging, looking for burial caves from the Roman and Byzantine eras.
A Border Police volunteer saw them and alerted antiquities inspectors, who immediately fielded an aerial vehicle that actually filmed them in action. The thieves were foiled in their quest, but not before they had damaged four tombs.
“We had known about the tombs; they can be seen from the surface,” Distelfeld said. “But they hadn’t been excavated yet. The thieves also destroyed an ancient agricultural facility.”
The district court was reportedly impressed with the aerial footage of the excavator in action.
Technically, the three men, all residents of Tur’an, were charged with damaging an antiquities site, doing something at the site without a permit and “aggravated attempted theft.”
Since Mishkana hasn’t been excavated – at least by anybody except robbers – we don’t know at this stage who might have been in the tombs. And if not for the luck of the robbers being caught red-handed, filmed and incarcerated, we wouldn’t even have the opportunity to look.