Three grave robbers were caught red-handed Friday night as they tried to raid antiquities in the area of Tel Ashkelon, a major archaeological dig south of the Ashkelon National Park in southern Israel. The three were caught in the act of digging up graves at the site – searching for gold, sarcophagi, or other valuable ancient artifacts, officials said.
The three were arrested and detained by Asheklon police. They appeared before a judge Saturday night, and their remand was extended.
Tel Ashkelon contains the ruins of the ancient city of Ashkelon, mentioned in the Bible as being connected to a number of important people and incidents – most famously as the home of the giant Goliath, defeated by King David in his battle against the Philistines. The city was inhabited continuously from the Biblical period until at least 1,500 years ago.
The thieves, residents of the nearby Bedouin community of Tel Sheva, were caught with heavy equipment, shovels, lights, and metal detectors, indicating that they were a professional gang that was experienced in antiquities theft. The three had broken stone covers over at least three graves, and pieces of dozens of clay jugs were strewn around their “work areas.” Officials said that the graves had been “irreparably damaged.”
According to an Archaeology Authority official, the graves were from the Byzantine period (330-1453 CE), and coffins from that period were usually made from lead. “In Byzantine pagan culture it was common for individuals to be buried with valuable artifacts and personal effects. These items are usually well-preserved inside the coffins, so thieves are generally very interested in them. Unfortunately, the damage caused by these treasure hunters means that archaeologists will not be able to examine the findings in these graves, and important questions about the cultures of these previous inhabitants of the Land of Israel are likely to remain unanswered,” the official said.