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Costly real estate: 1,800-year-old burial cave destroyed is Israel

1,800-year-old burial cave in northern Israel was nearly entirely destroyed after a family constructing a house there failed to notify of the discovery of antiquities and then attempted to conceal the evidence.

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Police officers followed by inspectors from the Israel Antiquities Authority’s (IAA) Theft Prevention Unit responded to a tip and arrived at a construction site on a private property in the Mashhad Regional Council, near Kfar Kana in Galilee. They discovered bulldozers and other equipment that had entirely devastated a rock-carved burial cave, leaving just a burial mound.

“There’s a misconception that if people report discoveries, then it will stop the work and they’ll be delayed, but it’s not necessarily true,” said Nir Distelfeld, supervisor of the IAA Theft Prevention Unit’s northern region. “Here, instead of stopping and reporting, they didn’t do that, they were hiding it.”

One burial cave had been totally demolished by the time inspectors arrived at the Mashhad site. Another burial cave hewn into the rock with nine burial mounds was newly discovered after having asked the managers to remove a pile of huge stones in another section of the site. The cave’s exterior was destroyed, but inspectors uncovered three ossuaries, or beautifully carved stone boxes used for keeping bones, near the entrance.

Antiquities finds must be notified to the Israel Antiquities Authority immediately under Israeli legislation. According to Distelfeld, the property’s owners will most likely be charged with both neglecting to notify an ancient discovery and harming an antiquity site. Damage to an archaeological site can result in up to five years in prison, though most judges reduce this to a monetary punishment.

“I’m sure we’re losing a lot of antiquities here because people see things and don’t want to report,” Distelfeld told The Times of Israel. “When you report something, we have the responsibility to go there and check it out as quickly as possible, and we’ll make the minimum delay that’s possible.”

He claims that most complaints of private citizen finds are resolved in a matter of days after archaeologists do a survey. The family will continue to construct in Mashhad now that IAA inspectors have assessed what remains of the second burial cave.

Distelfeld, who has worked for the IAA for 23 years, believes the family involved was not aiming to steal the site of antiquities on purpose, but rather to prevent building delays. The three unearthed ossuaries were relocated from their original location.

“We don’t know if there was theft. My feeling is that I think there was an attempt, but they didn’t do it,” said Distelfeld. “I think they started moving the ossuaries and then they regretted it, and left them there.”

“We will never know what that burial cave that was destroyed looked like – and everything inside is gone,” said Amir Ganon, director of the Theft Prevention Unit. “Cultural assets nearly 2,000 years old were lost forever.”

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