By Mara Vigevani
“Finds Gone Astray,” an exhibition of archaeological material retrieved from thieves and unauthorized antiquities dealers in the West Bank went on display December 30 at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem.
The exhibition is the result of the cooperation between the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem and the Israel staff officer of archaeology in the Civil Administration Unit that works to preserve Judea and Samaria antiquities while minimizing their damage and theft.
During their work of registration and preservation of the confiscated archaeological pieces, the unit noticed that some of the findings are particularly interesting and decided they should be displayed to the public and to the researchers.
In 2013, the unit and the Bible Lands Museum decided to choose the most interesting findings among the 40,000 artifacts found between 1968 and put them on display.
The unit also worked on the first volume in a new series of publications cataloguing 134 artifacts that went through a laborious process of documentation, photography, registration, laboratory cleaning, preservation, restoration and scientific testing to determine their age and origin and to preserve their scientific value for generations to come.
The catalog was released together with the opening of the exhibition.
The entire collection of confiscated items includes pottery and stone vessels, figurines, clay tablets bearing inscriptions, coins and incantation bowls — an assemblage of great importance to the understanding of the ancient Near East.
Some of the finds originated from other parts of the Middle East and were smuggled into the region. Others were illegally excavated using tools and methods that caused irreversible damage to archaeological sites of enormous historical significance. Hours of intensive detective work including patient surveillance, carefully planned ambushes, and nightly observations led to successfully interception of the thieves and retrieval of priceless artifacts.
For Amanda Weiss, Bible Lands Museum director, the uniqueness of the exhibition is not only in shedding light on the history of the region but in creating public awareness of the importance of protecting archaeological sites
“‘Finds Gone Astray’ is a unique opportunity to shed light on the importance of preserving the history of our region and protecting our ancient sites,” Weiss said.
“We welcome this partnership with the Civil Administration officer of the archaeological staff unit, and are proud to host the exhibition and launch the catalogue to increase public awareness that our heritage is in jeopardy.
“These objects are witnesses to history and link the generations in the universal story of the development of humankind.”
Hananya Hezmi, head staff officer of Archaeology Dept. of Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank, said that his unit spends most of the time dealing with the enforcement and the consequences of looting and smuggling archaeological antiquities, rather than developing new sites and overseeing excavations.
“Theft and destruction of antiquities is a widespread phenomenon that crosses borders for a range of reasons.
“In [the West Bank] specifically, there is rampant destruction of ancient sites caused by preparations for cultivating or building on the land,” Hezmi said.
“The methods used by the antiquities looters to uncover and expose the findings are brutal, causing irreversible damage to both sites and the findings and clearly harming academic research.
“We will continue to do everything in our power and invest the necessary resources in order to stop the damage to our shared culture and history.”