5,000-year-old jug discovered by American tourist in Judean Desert cave

A special operation by the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Robberies Prevention Unit and the Jerusalem Police has recovered hundreds of items in a raid on the home of a man suspected of illegally trading in antiquities.

Artifacts recovered in the raid and follow-up actions include bone and ivory objects dating to biblical times, as well as 1,500-year-old bowls inscribed with spells and chants in Hebrew.

Antiquities inspectors also found hundreds of ancient coins, glass vessels, and weapons.

The inscribed bowl was used as a sort of amulet in ancient times and dates back to 800-400 BCE. For the most part, these bowls were buried beneath a home’s floor to protect the inhabitants. The insides of the bowls were inscribed with spells written concentrically, both in Hebrew and Aramaic. The words and sentences were intended to combat curses, disease, and evil spirits.

Antiquities Robberies Prevention Unit director Amir Ganor said, “Bowls like these arrived from ancient sites in Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq. Artists would write the texts for specific clients, based on their personal needs. Sometimes, as we can see on one of the bowls recovered now, an image of the she-demon Lilith, which the bowl was supposed to fight, was drawn at the base of the bowl. After the civil war in Iraq, thousands of stolen ‘oath bowls’ started to reach the international market beginning in 2003.”

The IAA thinks that the suspect would repair and refurbish the bowls in order to sell them. At his home, inspectors found materials that they suspect were used to conserve the pottery vessels and clean coins.

Biblical-era items confiscated in the raid included rare bone and ivory objects decorated in Phoenician style with Egyptian motifs that include plants and animals as well as geometric designs. One plate depicts two mythical griffons with human faces. Another depicts a row of four winged lions.

The ivory plates were affixed to wooden furniture in the eighth and ninth centuries BCE, and are extremely rare. The IAA suspects that the plates found in the Jerusalem raid had been illegally excavated at archaeological digs in Samaria or northern Israel, where similar plates have been unearthed.

IAA Director-General Eli Escosido said, “The antiquities belong to us all. They are our heritage. Unauthorized antiquities traders encourage antiquities robbers to go out and destroy ancient sites, looking for items to sell. Out of greed, they harm the antiquities sites, remove the finds from their historical context, and do away with part of humanity’s story.”

Inspectors also discovered documents that could link the suspect to antiquities robbers and traders on the illegal market. After questioning the suspect, inspectors arrived at an auction house in central Israel, where they confiscated additional artifacts that the suspect had put up for sale, including weapons, glass items, and bronze and silver coins.

Once the investigation is complete, the IAA’s legal counsel will evaluate the possibility of indicting the suspect for unlicensed trade in antiquities, failure to register a collection, and being in possession of suspected stolen property.