JERUSALEM (JTA) — An 1,800-year-old stone sarcophagus was discovered at a building site in Ashkelon in southern Israel.
The sarcophagus — one of the rarest ever discovered in Israel — was removed early Wednesday morning from the building site by authority inspectors and Ashkelon police, the authority said in a statement issued Thursday.
Construction workers excavated the coffin last week and hid it under building materials, then poured a concrete floor to hide the evidence of the antiquities site, The Jerusalem Post reported.
Five Palestinian construction workers from the Hebron area who were sleeping at the construction site at the time of the raid were detained and questioned on suspicion of not reporting an ancient discovery and damaging an antiquities site and its artifacts – an offense punishable by five years imprisonment.
The sarcophagus and its lid were damaged from being struck repeatedly by a tractor in different places, scarring the stone and damaging the decorations sculpted by an artist on its sides.
“This is an extremely serious case of damage to a rare antiquity of unprecedented artistic, historical and cultural importance,” said Amir Ganor, who heads the antiquities authority’s Inspection Department. “The IAA is attentive to the development needs and the needs of the public, but will strictly enforce the law against those who knowingly damage antiquities, which are assets belonging to us all.”
The coffin, which is made of hard limestone and weighs about 2 tons, is sculpted on all sides. A life-size figure of a person is carved on the lid.
“Such sarcophagi were usually placed in or next to a family mausoleum,” according to Gabi Mazor, a retired archaeologist and an expert on classical periods. “The high level of decoration attested to the family’s affluence, which judging by the depicted motifs was probably not Jewish.”