Thousands of archaeological artifacts from Israel, the Mediterranean region, Mesopotamia, Africa and South America were recovered Monday in a collaborative swoop by the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Israeli police and the tax authority following a months-long investigation. Three suspects are being questioned by police and more arrests are expected, said Amir Ganor, head of the theft prevention unit at the IAA who led the investigation on the authority’s behalf.
The artifacts were regained by raids at three sites in central Israel, after months of tracking dealers illegally trading in antiquities. The detective archaeologists were stunned at the sheer quantity, and quality, of the artifacts.
The regained finds include hundreds of coins, most from the Seleucid Hellenistic period, and some extremely rare; gemstone-studded jewelry; statues, and figurines and carved stone heads of gods chiefly from the Roman period, as well as other votive items.
Hidden in storage rooms in private homes, many of the artifacts are museum quality, the IAA said.
How many thousands of items were actually seized? “We haven’t counted them yet,” Ganor said, adding however that after the far-reaching investigation, they knew enough to come along with a truck for the raid.
“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,” he said.
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Many of the antiquities, most rare and in some cases even restored at some point, had been robbed from graves, Ganor said.
The restored items were pottery, he added. “One almost never finds clay vessels complete in the ground,” he explained. In fact, some of the vessels still had bits of their original burial ground sticking to them.
Who originally found the fragmented vessels and painstakingly rebuilt them is anybody’s guess at this stage – whether the thieves themselves or underground restorers. “The ones we caught were not the thieves, they were the merchants,” Ganor said.
Aside from ancient coins in their hundreds, many of the finds – dozens – were beautiful “red and black”-style clay vessels made in Greece and southern Italy in the fifth and sixth centuries B.C.E., featuring people and animals performing various actions.
“These items were usually found in tombs. We found hundreds of them,” Ganor told Haaretz. “These are extremely precious items because of their manufacturing technique.” Naturally, each was handmade (all pottery was at the time). But the technique of making these Greek and Italian red and black vessels is complicated, involving multiple firings at different temperatures.
The pieces, burnished and then painted using clay slip, were originally made over 2,500 years ago for fine dining purposes and were buried with the dead. No motifs repeat themselves, he said.
Other items of pottery recovered by the authorities were simpler but exquisitely fashioned.
A career that goes back
Looting tombs is legion, but it’s nothing new. Nor is it a sign of the times. It was no secret back then, too, that the elites or just well-to-do were buried not only with manuals to the afterlife (in the case of Egypt), but with grave goods – generally supposed to enrich them in the afterlife. Ancient Egyptian graves were plagued by ancient Egyptian thieves too: Tomb robbery was even admitted to be a huge problem over 5,000 years ago, during the Early Dynastic Period.
The problem was not, of course, confined to Egypt but apparently happened wherever humans ceremoniously interred their dead with gear for the next life. The ancient Chinese had quite the battle over whether the dead should be buried richly or frugally: One classic Chinese text compiled around 239 B.C.E., Lüshi Chunqiu (“Master Lü’s Spring and Autumn Annals”), discussing social ills, advocated modest burials because of that very problem – an “uncontrollable epidemic of grave robbery.” Another school of ancient Chinese thought at the time advocated modest burial for the sake of resource conservation.
Happily for posterity, sometimes the grave robbers may miss precious things – like the earliest-known true cheese, wrapped in cloth and identified in a jar found in an Egyptian tomb. Happily, it wasn’t stolen or eaten by the treasure-hunters in antiquity who were first to comb through the grave.
Yet the sheer extent of the robberies leading to the treasure in the storerooms was eye-popping, archaeology officials told Haaretz.
The IAA noted that it’s investigating whether any, or which, of the items were stolen in Israel, and is collaborating with Interpol and other overseas law-enforcement bodies to track down the source of other artifacts. Ganor pointed out that despite the stunning recovery, the investigation is just starting.
Interestingly, among the loot were a number of wooden masks from Africa, but the archaeological anti-robbery unit officials did not take them, mainly on the grounds that they’re not old enough to qualify as archaeological artifacts, it seems. Also, they have no understanding of this art.
“We deal with things that interest us as archaeological artifacts made before the year 1700,” Ganor explained. “We don’t know when the African art was made.”
Among the artifacts hailing from ancient Egypt, the investigators found decorated sarcophagus lids, painted wooden boxes in Egyptian style, statues of gods in faience, and more. The “Israeli” artifacts, found locally, include a great deal of pottery and a whole lot of coins – mainly silver coins from the Seleucid period.
At this point in time, the authorities are investigating where each stolen item originated. Photos of the pieces will be disseminated among law authorities abroad in hope of identifying points of origin.
The Israeli gambit
If the pieces were looted from graves and sites all around the Mediterranean basin and Africa, and Asia too, why would they have been smuggled into Israel in the first place?
“Because Israel is famous as a market for antiquities,” Ganor answered. “It is one of the only countries around the Mediterranean basin where the law enables antiquities merchants to obtain a license to sell. At the moment, there are 47 licensed antiquities dealers. So, if one has illegal antiquities and slips them into the inventory of a licensed trader, they’re effectively whitewashed. Then one can market them around the world under the guise of artifacts legally traded in Israel.”
Not just sold: legal traders can get export licenses for these bits of history. “Then the artifacts can reach a third country with an Israeli ID. The whole gambit is to slip the stolen artifacts from anywhere in the world into legal inventories,” Ganor said. “We assume the suspects were trading in these things, and were trying to sell them in Israel and abroad, each time trickling small amounts onto the market.”
None of the detainees were licensed traders, he added – but at least some were in contact with licensed traders. “One of our directions of investigation is the next stage: To learn why the licensed traders cooperated with them and allowed stolen artifacts into their inventories.”
The maximal sentence for trading in stolen antiquities is three years, and to each his own opinion of whether that is a deterrent or not. More serious is the financial cost, Ganor said: not only heavy fines but loss of the stolen inventory. When the state recovers stolen artifacts, it assumes their ownership, by the way.
“The IAA shall not allow trade in stolen antiquities, and will cooperate with any entity in the world to prevent it,” Ganor concluded. “Antiquities are a legacy for all cultures and for humanity. They must not be treated like vegetables.”