Israel had been the focus of many archaeological activities in this year, with IAA (Israel Antiquities Authority) taking a leading role in preserving the country’s historical artifacts. And now added to this proud list is a very rare find pertaining to a 1800-year old Roman sarcophagus. Discovered by chance, the 8.2 ft (2.5 m) long specimen was found by men who were on working on a construction project for villas in the city of Ashkelon, looking over the Mediterranean coast.
A rich coffin for a rich Roman –
To that end, this imposing coffin boasts sculptural workmanship on all of its sides, while its main lid (shaped like a tent) features an intricate life-size carving of a man on one side. Showcasing his Roman-style ‘curly’ haircut, the richly bedecked figure seems to be leaning on his left-hand, and wearing a short-sleeved embroidered shirt complemented by a waist long tunic. And what’s more, his eyes were most probably inlaid with precious stones, but these ritzy specimens have since been lost.
As for the other side of the tent-shaped lid, it features carving of a metal-made amphora (a wine vessel) that is interspersed with motifs like grapes and leaves. These depictions are further accompanied by rich details on the flanks of the sarcophagus – with decorative elements including wreaths, bulls’ heads, naked cupids and even Medusa (represented with her hair as snakes). This does mirror the Roman belief that the mythical monster female watched over their deceased.
However the million-dollar question still remains unanswered, and that pertains to the mysterious occupant of the tomb. To that end, the archaeologists could only attest that the deceased surely came from a wealthy family – judged from the well-crafted embellishments along the big coffin. But on closer inspections of the motifs, the individual was most probably not of native Jewish faith.
A legal trouble –
Now while IAA had tried its best the solve the situation, the discovery of the Roman sarcophagus itself might have taken an illegal route. This was due to what is perceived as negligence on the part of the construction workers who found the rare coffin. In that regard, instead of contacting the proper authorities (which is IAA in this case), they took upon themselves to unearth the historical specimen – and too in a rough manner with a help of a tractor.
Suffice it to say, the sarcophagus has been reported to be damaged on all sides due to this odd activity. Moreover, the workers tried their best to hide the discovery by placing metallic sheets upon the Roman coffin, while concealing the excavated ground with poured concrete. Fortunately for the sake of preserved history, tipsters found out about the ‘inconspicuous’ scenario, and promptly contacted the police. As a result, the alleged crime might carry a pretty strong sentence, with IAA already preparing to take legal action against the perpetrators.
Amir Ganor, head of the IAA inspection department, clarified –
This is an extremely serious case of damage to a rare antiquity of unprecedented artistic, historical and cultural importance. Out of consideration for the owners of the lots, we permitted building in the new neighborhood of villas, on condition they would report any discovery of antiquities in the area right away and immediately halt work until the arrival of our representative. In this case, the building contractors chose to hide the rare artifact, and their action has caused painful damage to history.
Images credit: Yoli Shwartz, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.