For the first time, the public will gain view into thousands of “Finds Gone Astray,” a new Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem exhibit of rescued artifacts from antiquities thieves.
On Sunday, the museum will open an exhibit revealing dozens of items that were rescued from looters and unlicensed antiquities dealers in Judea and Samaria, as part of a unique cooperation between the museum and the Israel staff officer of archaeology in the Civil Administration.
The objects, located and seized by the Civil Administration between 1968 and the present day, include pottery and stone vessels, figurines, clay tablets bearing inscriptions, coins, incantation bowls and more.
According to the museum’s deputy director, Leora Berry, these items “constitute an assemblage of great importance to our understanding of the history of the ancient Near East.”
Many of the objects were illegally excavated using tools and methods that have caused irreversible damage to archaeological sites of enormous local historical significance.
“When robbers destroy these archaeological sites, these are things that we cannot restore,” Berry said.
It took hours of intensive detective work, including patient surveillance, carefully planned ambushes, and nightly observations to intercept the thieves and retrieve these artifacts. The rescued objects have been carefully preserved and stored, and numerous looters operating in Judea and Samaria have been prosecuted. Over the last 50 years, 40,000 objects have been collected.
“Theft and destruction of antiquities is a widespread phenomenon that crosses borders for a range of reason,” said Head of the Central Command Hananya Hezmi. “In Judea and Samaria specifically, there is rampant destruction of ancient sites caused by preparations for cultivating or building on the land. The methods used by the antiquities looters to uncover and expose the findings are brutal, causing irreversible damage to both sites and the findings and clearly harming academic research. We will continue to do everything in our power and invest the necessary resources in order to stop the damage to our shared culture and history.”
Berry explained that some of the finds did not originate in Judea and Samaria, but from other parts of the Middle East and were smuggled or sold into the area, including from surrounding islands like Cyprus.
For example, a jug or teapot from the Late Bronze Age (1550–1200 BCE) is on display, which was likely extracted from a burial near the ancient city of Samaria. Vessels like this one, placed in ancient burials, may have contained food or drink offerings that played a role in funerary rituals and, according to ancient belief, might serve the deceased in the afterlife.
“This also tells us a lot about the extensive commerce and cultural influences and ties that existed during that time,” Berry said.
A double figurine with one head wearing a pomegranate-shaped crown and the other head wearing a beard above a body with breasts is made of baked clay and originates from Syria, dated to the late third to second millennia BCE. Berry said that in the ancient world, fertility was linked to sexuality, and especially female sexuality. To invoke blessings of fertility, people would often devote sexualized objects to the gods.
Of interest is a group of incantation bowls inscribed with ink, many of them messages or magical formulas that were meant to cast away demons or evil spirits. Some of them have Jewish-Aramaic writing, said Berry, “so they were obviously used by Jews at that time, too.”
In the collection is one incantation bowl with a Jewish-Aramaic inscription and an image of a human face. It originates from southern Mesopotamia and dates to the fifth to seventh centuries CE.
“The writing is almost a direct link to the people living at the time and how they expressed themselves,” said Berry. “Names of people, the names of their Gods and the demons from which they were trying to protect themselves are on those bowls.”
She said the bowls were buried under the entrance to people’s homes to make sure the demons didn’t come in.
The exhibit will kick off Sunday at 6 p.m. with an opening ceremony at which Culture Minister Miri Regev, Deputy Minister of Defense Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj.-Gen. Kamil Abu Rukun, Head of the Civil Administration Brig.-Gen. Ben-Hur Akhvat and many other influential members of society are expected to attend.
The opening will also mark the release of the first volume in a new series of publications cataloging these 40,000 artifacts. This first volume is the fruit of a laborious process of documentation, photography, registration, laboratory cleaning, preservation, restoration and scientific testing to determine the age and origin of each item and preserve their scientific value for generations to come.
“I think there is great importance to the publication of a catalogue with essays and articles that accompany the artifacts for the research community,” said Berry. “We have a responsibility to make these things accessible to the public, to conserve these artifacts, but also to hold onto this heritage for generations to come.”
She said, “We also want to explain how much damage can be done and why this should be monitored and stopped.”
Berry said that sometimes thieves take the artifacts because they want to make money and other times, they are informed about what they are doing and know their archaeological value. She said most of the thieves in Judea and Samaria are Palestinians, but archaeological theft is not unique to the area.
“At this stage, we have responsibility for these objects,” said Berry. “We have to preserve them whether they are Jewish, Muslim or otherwise. I would hope that if at some point any of this land was turned over to the Palestinian Authority that they would do the same.”
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