A remarkable Roman artifact has been preserved by Israeli authorities after it was seized from construction workers who had damaged the relic in an attempt to conceal it. The Israel Antiquities Authority seized an ornately carved stone sarcophagus on September 2 after police in the maritime city of Ashkelon received a tip. In a statement, the IAA described the valuable stone tomb saying “This is one of the rarest sarcophagi ever discovered in Israel.”
Police detectives busted the construction workers who had sought to hide the evidence beneath a layer of concrete. In its statement, the IAA said “They decided to hide it, pulled it out of the ground with a tractor, while aggressively damaging it, concealed it beneath a stack of sheet metal and boards and poured a concrete floor in the lot so as to conceal any evidence of the existence of the antiquities site.”
The sarcophagus is made of limestone and weighs approximately 4400 pounds. It measures approximately 8 feet in length and is elaborately carved on all side and has a heavy stone lid that is carved with a full-size human figure carved into it. Despite some irreparable damage caused by the construction workers, much of the carving is intact.
One side of the coffin depicts a man reclining in the manner that Greek and Roman patricians were accustomed to dine. The figure of the man is shown leaning on his left arm. Wrapped around his waist is a garment, while he is also wearing what appears to be a short-sleeved shirt adorned with embroidery. The figures eyes may have been inlaid with precious stones that have disappeared. His hair was fashioned in a curly coif that was popular some 1800 years ago.
On the other side of the lid is a carved representation of a metal vessel used for transporting wine. It is adorned with intertwining vines bearing clusters of leaves and grapes.
“The sarcophagus itself, which was more severely damaged by a tractor, is decorated with, among other things, wreaths and images of bulls’ heads, naked cupids, and the head of the monstrous female figure Medusa, which includes remains of hair together with snakes – part of a commonly held belief in the Roman period that she protects the deceased,” said Gabi Mazor – a former IAA archaeologist.
Sarcophagi such as this were usually placed in a family mausoleum. Given the sort of decoration on the tomb, it is likely that the former occupant of the sarcophagus was not Jewish.
A night-time raid on September 2 found five Palestinian construction workers sleeping at the job site. Upon questioning, police determined that Palestinians had hidden the sarcophagus and lid. “During the investigation of the laborers at the Ashkelon police station, it became clear that the sarcophagus was excavated last week,” the IAA said in a statement. “When questioned, they showed the investigators photos and videos taken at the time of the sarcophagus’ discovery, and while removing it from the ground. Later that night, two building contractors were detained who are residents of the city and were responsible for the construction work on the site.”
Because the contractors damaged an antiquity and did not report their discovery, they will now face legal proceedings. They may face up to five years in prison if convicted.
Construction work will continue at the site so long workers report any future discoveries of antiquities.