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IAA Recovers Rare Sarcophagus in Overnight Operation


JERUSALEM, Israel -- The Israel Antiquities Authority discovered an exquisitely decorated 1,800-year-old sarcophagus in an overnight sting operation at a pre-construction excavation site.

Israeli law requires a pre-construction dig before any type of building to preserve any antiquities that may be there.

Ashkelon police officers and detectives accompanied IAA inspectors from the Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery in the operation. The team discovered what's been described as one of the rarest sarcophagi ever discovered in Israel.

The 2-ton, 2.5-meter (yard) long hard limestone coffin is sculpted on every side, including a life-size sculpture on the lid.

Unfortunately, contractors damaged the rare find when they used tractors to pull it out of the ground and then attempted to conceal it.

Officers detained five Arab construction workers from Hevron who were sleeping at the construction site.

During questioning at the Ashkelon police station, the workers explained the sarcophagus had been dug up the week before. They showed police photos and videos of its discovery and removal. Authorities also detained the two contractors in charge of construction at the building site.

They face charges of not reporting the discovery to authorities, damaging an antiquities site and the artifacts found there, which is punishable by a five-year prison term.

IAA Inspection Department head Amir Ganor called the incident "an extremely serious case of damage to a rare antiquity of unprecedented artistic, historical and cultural importance."

Ganor said legal proceedings would be taken against those involved in the incident.

"The proper way to operate in an ancient and important historic city such as Ashkelon is with transparency, openness and close cooperation between the property owners and the IAA," Ganor said.

Dr. Gabi Manor, a retired archaeologist and expert on classical periods, said "such sarcophagi were usually placed in or next to a family mausoleum."

"The high level of decoration attested to the family's affluence," he said, "which judging by the depicted motifs was probably not Jewish."

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