Over 2,000 years following their entombments in a Jerusalem cave, 11 ossuaries dating back to the Second Temple period containing the skeletal remains of members of a Jewish family were stolen by Palestinian looters for sale to Jewish buyers on the black market.
As a result, the two Arab men who stole the chests remain in jail, while the two Jews who colluded with them to buy and then sell them are under house arrest, the Antiquities Authority said Monday.
According to Eitan Klein, deputy director of IAA’s Theft Prevention Unit, the men were arrested shortly after midnight on Friday near a checkpoint between the West Bank and Jerusalem, after a patrol unit spotted two suspicious cars parked in a nearby parking lot.
Upon pulling up to the vehicles, Klein said four men – identified as two Palestinians from Bethlehem and east Jerusalem, and two Jews from Tel Aviv – were seen standing near the 11 ossuaries, placed on the ground.
“The police understood [the chests] were antiquities, and called our office,” said Klein, as he manned a display of the chests at the Rockefeller Museum in east Jerusalem Monday.
“When we came it was determined they were from the Second Temple period. I could tell within a minute that they were from that time because of their size, shape and carvings.”
After extensive questioning, Klein said police determined that the suspect from Bethlehem illegally drove into Jerusalem, where he and his accomplice stole the artifacts from a cave in an unknown location.
They then transported the looted chests to the meeting point near the checkpoint, where the two Jewish buyers were waiting for them, he said.
“They tried to sell each of the 11 ossuaries for $1,500 a piece,” said Klein. “That’s when the police caught them.”
The two Palestinian suspects were subsequently charged with selling antiquities without a license, selling looted items, and entering Israel from the West Bank without a permit, which could result in a maximum of five years’ imprisonment, he said.
The two Jewish men were charged with attempting to buy stolen antiquities, a less serious crime, which is why they have been placed under house arrest, Klein added.
However, far more interesting than the alleged criminals, is the history of the limestone ossuaries, all of which were remarkably well preserved.
Beginning in 1 BC, Klein said such chests were stored in caves dug by individual Jewish families in Jerusalem hillsides and sealed with an enormous fitted boulder following an elaborate burial ritual.
“After the person died and was given a mikve [ritual bath], the body was taken by family members to the cave and placed in a special crevice where it was left for one year,” he said. “The boulder was then moved back to protect the remains.”
Klein said the body was left unclothed, noting that only lit oil lamps “to light the way to heaven,” possessions important to the deceased, and glass containers containing fragrant perfumes were left inside.
“After the year concluded, the family returned to the cave to take the skeletal remains and place them in a specially crafted ossuary,” Klein said. The ossuary containing the corpses had to be as long as the person’s thigh bone, which indicated the age of the deceased, he added.
Indeed, the 11 chests on display at the museum were all different sizes.
“You see this small one?” Klein asked, as he pointed to a relatively small chest. “This was likely the tomb of a child. The bigger ones are for adults.”
The archeologist said this burial ceremony was practiced in Jerusalem until 70 AD, when the Second Temple was destroyed; although it continued in other areas of Judea until 135 AD, until the Bar-Kokhba Revolt against the Romans.
While each of the chests usually contains one person, Klein said married couples, or a mother and her child, were occasionally encased together.
“It was very personal,” he said.
Klein added that in many cases the caves were divided into two sections: one to place the body to decompose after death, and one where the ossuaries were placed.
“Our research shows there were over 800 burial caves from the Second Temple period used for generations of families,” Klein said. “Usually at least 10 bodies were decomposing at one time and at least 20 ossuaries were nearby in another room. It was common to have the bones of a great grandfather in a [chest] while his great grandson was placed in a crevice.”
Klein said the families would commission an artist to carve elaborate geometric designs on each ossuary’s exterior to decorate it to honor the deceased.
“Based on the carvings, we can determine the wealth of the family,” he said. “The more ornate the ossuary, the greater the wealth.”
Many of the chests at the museum were adorned with flowers with six perfectly symmetric pedals, enclosed in equally symmetric rings of circles, likely carved with the help of a compass, Klein said.
Small pomegranate and palm trees carvings were also visible to symbolize “the victory of the soul to heaven,” he added.
“We have 11 here, but we know of more than 1,000 found in Jerusalem,” Klein said. “In fact, 10 years ago we found the area where the coffins were carved by artists.”
Several of the ossuaries had their lids taken off, exposing the delicate bone fragments of each person. However, only two of the chests had the person’s name inscribed in Hebrew on its side.
“This one says Yoezer, which we know was a common Jewish name during the Second Temple period,” Klein said as he pointed to the still visible inscription, which was also carved in Greek. “The name Ralfin is on the other one, but we only have their first names.”
Klein said all the ossuaries will be held in an IAA warehouse and used for evidence, should the case go to trial.
“Afterwards the judge will likely deem them state property, at which time museums can request use of them for exhibitions,” he added.
Meanwhile, Klein said the bone fragments will be transferred to the Ministry of Religious Services to be buried according to Jewish law.
He went on to condemn the thieves for violating the sacred remains.
“When criminals like this come and dig without permission, the damage they create is very large and irreversible,” he said.
According to Klein, the IAA’s Theft Prevention Unit identifies at least 300 instances of antiquities looting annually, resulting in 50 to 60 arrests.
“It’s a shame that people do this,” he said. “They are stealing our history.”