The Destruction of Antiquities

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Excerpt Archaeological sites are in danger around the Ancient Near East. While there are antiquities laws in place throughout the region, they rarely suffice to deter the destruction. Once the crime is committed, the data is irretrievably lost, or at best, it is devalued. The plot of Clive Cussler’s best-selling novel, Crescent Dawn, portrays the conflict between those who want to preserve antiquities and those who want to plunder or destroy them. Sadly, this goes far beyond fictional depictions. There are four main causes of the destruction of antiquities... Continue reading

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The most common cause of antiquities destruction is looting. In short, looters are seeking to extract coins or other ancient artifacts in order to sell them to individuals or antiquities dealers. This is particularly problematic in Israel where antiquities dealers are licensed by the government. It is common knowledge that the majority of items sold in the quaint antiquities shops in the Old City have been illegally looted from unprotected archaeological sites. For this reason, archaeologists generally refuse to do business with the antiquities industry, and some will not even document artifacts that did not derive from controlled excavations. The first-century city of Archaelaeus, north of Jericho in the Jordan Valley, was severely looted two years ago; there is little doubt where the antiquities ended up. Sadly, for every scarab excavated in situ, there are ten that are looted. The value of the scarab is that it can be used to date the stratum in which it was recovered. Once it is removed from its context, this value is lost. Until recently, the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) did not allow archaeologists to use metal detectors. Some, like Jodi Magness at Huquq (northern Galilee), still refuse to use them. As a result, clandestine diggers come in after hours with their metal detectors and glean the majority of the coins. Once the IAA changed its policy, the number of coins professionally recovered by excavators multiplied exponentially.


The second cause of antiquities destruction is vandalism. Vandals are most often motivated by hate. They desire to discourage or intimidate excavators. Examples of vandalism include the following: knocking over excavated walls, smashing large items like columns that are sometimes left in the field, and using explosives to destroy a subterranean feature like a cistern. In July 2014, the terrorist group ISIS/ISIL set explosives in the tomb of Jonah, an ultimate act of vandalism.

Modern Development

The third cause of antiquities destruction is urban and rural sprawl. Modernity has been very hard on archaeological sites. As cities and villages expand, it is often at the cost of antiquities. Jordan is littered with tells that have modern roads cut through them in order to save a few dinar. Examples include Tall Dei Alla, Tall Iktanu, and Tall Nimrin. In cities like Jerusalem, this is controlled so that at least salvage excavations are performed before new municipal projects are completed. However, in the West Bank the laws are often ignored or unenforced. The ancient ruins at et-Tell (Ai of Abraham’s day) are a perfect example. Sections of the ancient tell are rapidly being cut away so that new houses (mansions!) can be built. In 1999 and 2013 at Khirbet el-Maqatir (Ai of Joshua’s day), significant portions of the site were lost to agricultural expansion. Fences were illegally erected, and antiquities were plowed away in favor of new olive groves. At Tall el-Hammam in Jordan, the main road was widened, with the effect of destroying a Roman-era aqueduct. When antiquities are not professionally excavated, the data is diminished or forever lost. A quintessential example of this occurred in 1999 when the Muslim Waqf authority that controls the Temple Mount commissioned the building of new staircases in the southeast corner of the Temple Mount. Over 400 truckloads of archaeological material was ripped from its context before being dumped in the Kidron Valley. This material was eventually relocated to Emeq Tzurim on the Mount of Olives. To date, about half of the material has been sifted, resulting in a plethora of important finds. Using established ceramic chronologies, archaeologists have been able to reconstruct a tentative context, but this amazing project is the exception, not the rule.


The fourth cause of antiquities destruction is war. Ancient people chose elevated areas to build their cities so that they would have a militarily advantageous position. Not surprisingly, modern armies dig trenches into ancient tells in times of war. While this is incomprehensible from a Western perspective, it is common practice across the Levant. Examples of such trenches can be seen at Tell Dan in northern Israel and Tall el-Hammam in central Jordan. A great amount of archaeological material is ripped out of its context. This does, however, allow archaeologists to see into lower strata and make better decisions about where they focus their excavation squares.


All of this underscores the urgency of the work that groups like ABR are doing. In Matthew 13:52 Jesus said, “Every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” Archaeology in the land of the Bible is on the cutting edge between the old and new. It is a slow and tedious process that is always working under the pressure of urgency.


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