Builders Uncovered Unique Sarcophagus in Israel… and Hid It

The young man on the 1,800 year old sarcophagus, Ashkelon, Israel


A 1,800 year old sarcophagus believed to have belonged to a young Roman man has been returned to the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) after initially being hidden by builders. The sarcophagus is slightly damaged due to the rough treatment it received by the builders, but authorities say it is still one of a kind and quite impressive.

The sarcophagus is 2.5 meters (8 feet) long, made of limestone, weighs two tons, and is decorated on all sides. A representative from the IAA has said that the coffin is “one of the most important and beautiful” discovered in Israel to date.

The decoration of the coffin includes: cupids, bulls’ heads, wreaths, an amphora with grapes, a young man (believed to be a representation of the deceased), and a medusa head.

It is not a surprise to encounter a Roman coffin in Ashkelon from the time period of approximately the 3rd Century, however “this is one of the rarest sarcophagi ever discovered in Israel,” an IAA spokesperson said in a statement.

The city of Ashkelon was once a city containing a mix of pagan Romans, Jews and Samaritans. Nonetheless, the decoration on the sarcophagus leaves little doubt to the identity of the deceased – the image of the young man who had curly hair (in the typical Roman style) and was depicted wearing a short-sleeved embroidered shirt.

The sarcophagus was recovered in an overnight operation after the IAA received a tip off regarding illegal activity at a construction site. When workers at the site were questioned they showed the investigators videos and photos of the discovery and subsequent removal of the limestone coffin.  “They decided to hide it, pulled it out of the ground with a tractor while aggressively damaging it,” the IAA wrote in a statement.

The IAA Inspection Department head, Amir Ganor, said that the IAA will “strictly enforce the law against those who purposely damage antiquities.” This may mean punishment for up to five years in prison for those found guilty of involvement in the unlawful removal and destruction of the sarcophagus.

Ganor said that the IAA provided building on the site under the precondition that any antiquities discovered would be promptly reported to the IAA. It is believed that the sarcophagus was hid to prevent delays or the cancellation of the building project.

The IAA has made it clear that they are not against development in Ashkelon, yet transparency and openness is not open for debate, according to Ganor: “Only in this way will the development of the city be possible, while protecting public assets for the common good. The development of archaeological resources in the city of Ashkelon and bringing the public into the city are now a major priority in the IAA’s work plan for the coming years.”

According to a statement by retired IAA archaeologist Dr. Gabi Mazor, there may be more ancient finds to be unearthed in Ashkelon in the near future: “Such sarcophagi were typically placed in or next to a family mausoleum.”

Featured Image: The young man on the 1,800 year old sarcophagus, Ashkelon, Israel (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

By Alicia McDermott

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