Fake Treasure Maps and Savvy Thieves: A Day in the Life of an Antiquities Crime-buster in Israel

Some come with the grandkids, some with tractors: Every day an archaeological site in Israel is looted. How Hillel Silberklang and the Israel Antiquities Authority try to foil the rampant thievery

Andrew Califf
Andrew Califf
ilberklang pointing out different looting events that occurred in the same section of Horvat Shmarya
ilberklang pointing out different looting events that occurred in the same section of Horvat ShmaryaCredit: Andrew Califf
Andrew Califf
Andrew Califf

The mud-splattered Mitsubishi truck lurched to a stop on top of a small hill near Horvat Shmarya in central Israel, between the Shephelah and the coastal plain. Hillel Silberklang reached for a pair of binoculars and fixed them on a distant hill where people were crowding around a sedan.

Just a family out for a picnic, enjoying the sunny day, not plotting to rob ancient antiquities, it turned out. That was a relief. Silberklang is in the Israel Antiquity Authorities’ Theft Prevention Unit, which is tasked with preventing looting and grave robbing from the countless archeological sites in Israel. Horvat Shmarya is a hotspot for tactical, premeditated looting and tractor smash-and-grabs.

“It’s a shame because there has been a lot of illegal activity there, and we really know nothing about that site,” said Silberklang. “The worst thing about destroying a site is that you only have one shot at excavating. Whatever information it had is lost forever, and damage to an archaeological site is final.”

Piles of dirt and pottery sherds from zealous looting dot the grassy hills. One tractor even tore straight through an ancient building, leaving the chiseled stone blocks strewn about. Another obliterated an ancient pottery workshop. These aggressive tactics using heavy machinery are just one strategy for the people illegally uprooting antiquities.

A piece of a lead, Byzantine coffin found in the seasonal stream beds behind Ashkelon. It looks like it was pried and bentCredit: Andrew Califf

Bonding with grandpa

The archaeologically-crowded land of Israel is split into multiple regions, for the purposes of the Theft Prevention Unit. Silberklang has been patrolling a region spanning from the Judean Shephelah to Ashkelon since he joined the team approximately three years ago. He is engaged in a perennial game of cat-and-mouse with a wide range of usual, and some unusual, suspects.

Looters may be experts, opportunists, or even and sometimes just grandfathers and grandchildren bonding while collecting ancient coins. The latter may sound innocuous but all of this is considered antiquities theft, according to the IAA.

This wide range is also why Silberklang’s boss claims every night, somewhere in Israel, someone is looting something.

Silberklang at the entrance to a well and possibly Byzantine cisternCredit: Andrew Califf

“Some make an outing out of it. They dig a little bit, drink some coffee, have a picnic, a BBQ, bring the kids,” he says about the sorts of people he catches, like the grandfather and grandson duo collecting coins. But not all are so endearing. “The real big fish won’t be the ones that you’ll catch, usually. They do the planning and they say, this is where I want you to dig, I’ll pick you up later,” he explains.

Other looters are likely self-educated in archaeology, anthropology, or ancient history and can pinpoint and expertly excavate graves, but they need to get their hands dirty to apply their expertise. Byzantine tombs at Horvat Ginta in the Judean foothills were emptied like this, at least some happening while Silberklang was out of commission due to a broken leg.

He later excavated these tombs with archaeologists from the IAA to see if the looters had missed anything, but they had gone through the Roman burials with a fine-tooth comb, leaving nothing for posterity.

Empty Byzantine tombs looted by expert or professional grave robbers at Horvat GintaCredit: Andrew Califf

TikTok legends

Other looters dubbed “treasure hunters” take tractors and can destroy entire ancient structures, and maybe not find a single thing, or miss the point, Silberklang says. At one small site, Be’er Kelakh, stone structures survived the onslaught while would-be robbers made a beeline to dig aggressively with tractors near a singular tree, ultimately disturbing little.

These blundering attempts to loot might actually be due to fraudulent treasure maps and Silberklang thinks the tree was an X marking the spot. Silberklang has seen fake treasure maps circulating on social media platforms such as TikTok, as well as staged, superfluous finds that only serve to motivate amateurs with metal detectors.

Silberklang doesn’t know whether the experts or the amateurs are worse: the one extensively destroys without discernment, while the professionals leave much intact, but usually succeed at targeting the most valuable artifacts.

Next to the shattered pottery sherd piles is another tractor-plowed mound, and this one used to be a structure. Chiseled stone blocks could be as old as Byzantine period Credit: Andrew Califf
A pottery crafting complex dug up by tractors in Horvat Shmarya, or at least what Silberklang surmises was for pottery production, because of the amount of sherds. Credit: Andrew Califf

The incidence of well-funded and targeted looting ventures is estimated to have more than doubled since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in 2020. Silberklang thinks people were bored, strapped for cash, and social media also encouraged wannabe Indian Joneses. The estimate is based on the fact that the amount of catches reeled in increased, in fact it doubled.

He has staked out sites and army-crawled through mud and wheat fields to catch looters red-handed, hopefully using an incriminating metal detector, which is illegal to bring to an archaeological site in itself. On one occasion he had to spend all night in a police station covered in mud after catching a group near Rahat. He recollects being a few meters away from the lookout on the phone protected by nothing more than darkness, tall grass, and muddy camouflage he had collected by dragging himself to the site. Three looters were caught, but the lookout got away.

He is armed on the job, but he has never had to fire his weapon. Members of the unit should always wait for backup before dragging themselves through wet wheat fields to get the drop on culprits, he stresses, but sometimes backup is preoccupied.

“A lot of times I have needed the police and their assistance for all sorts of things, and I have heard, OK, I would like to help you but I have some more important stuff to do at the moment, like murders,” Silberklang said. “I get a bit of a reality check, the world doesn’t revolve around me and my little antiquities.”

The prevention unit also does quick excavations itself in response to signs of looting: the best prevention can be getting antiquities out of the ground quickly and properly. The IAA did this for the aforementioned Byzantine tombs in Horvat Ginta.

Sometimes they have to work quickly and get there before any looters. Rain and ensuing erosion forces Silberklang to respond with alacrity to every alert during the winter. Flowing water exposes ancient Byzantine burials and other archaeological treasures along Ashkelon’s sandy wash. The whole area needs significantly more patrolling and preventative excavating this time of year, he explains: and when something starts to peep up from the rainwashed land, the IAA assesses looting risks and prepares to dig if necessary. (Just this week heavy rains along the coast exposed a marble column from a Byzantine church, lying on the Ashdod beach under the sand.)

Stone layouts of the complex Byzantine mortuary layout only become more and more visible with each rainy season.Credit: Andrew Califf
An empty tomb that may have been looted a very long time agoCredit: Andrew Califf

Scuba sleuths

Looters can be tactical, with lookouts and tarps to cover their activities. The Theft Prevention Unit works with the Israeli Parks Service, police, communities, sometimes Bedouins, and undisclosed technologies to catch culprits. There is even a scuba division taking justice to archaeological criminals on the high seas. Archaeological laws are even murkier underwater with recreational divers scouring the bottom.

The unit doesn’t just tip-toe around mortuary complexes at night looking for bad guys like Scooby-Doo. There is a whole team devoted to stopping antiquities theft at the middle man, or the dealer. Dealers broker interactions between looters and buyers creating a smoke screen of anonymity for both parties.

Antiquities crime-buster Hillel Silberklang on a mound of broken pottery dug up by a tractor. Looters went straight through the floor of the pottery complexCredit: Andrew Califf

ISIS even looted to fund their ventures, and Silberklang speculates many collectors have unknowingly supported the Islamic militants.

The IAA legal team takes over where the Theft Prevention Unit finishes, trying to push convictions. But it can be hard to pin convictions to looters and convictions aren’t very effective at deterring archaeological desecration. Repeatedly looters return to the scene of their initial crimes after paying the fines according to Silberklang.

He has caught repeat offenders on multiple occasions: once it was the same group, in the same place within a month. Over his three years, Silberklang feels he has developed an intuition in this complex game of whack-a-mole. It’s a battle, and he thinks the lenient punishment is part of the problem.

Fines are often small risks compared to the potential rewards just below ground level. Ultimately Silberklang thinks more people on prevention duty and harsher punishments might help. He also points out that if he can’t get back-up, he never goes to make arrests.

Horvat Ginta in the ShephelahCredit: Andrew Califf

Despite these limitations, the unit is improving and making progress, learning and adapting to how the enemies operate, Silberklang sums up. But the issue, is the looters are too, not unlike a virus trying to stay one step ahead of the immune system.

The Israel Antiquities Authority commented that it operates a nationwide inspection system, numbering about 180 inspectors throughout the country, including members of the Theft Prevention Unit. “The entire supervision system works in synergy and coordination in order to protect antiquities sites in the State of Israel,” the IAA stated.

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