A rare 1,800-year-old sarcophagus was recently exposed in Ashkelon, Israel. Photo: Yoli Schwartz, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
A unique 1,800-year-old sarcophagus was recently unearthed at a construction site in the southern coastal city of Ashkelon in Israel. Workers at the site reportedly discovered the sarcophagus more than a week before officials from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) were alerted to the find. To avoid any delays, the contractors dug out the sarcophagus with a tractor and buried it underneath piles of boards and sheet metal. They then filled in the area with concrete to hide the ancient site. Due to this negligence, the exceptional limestone coffin is now irreparably damaged. The hasty excavation-by-tractor severely scarred the lid and the decorations sculpted on the sides. As a result, the IAA will take legal action against those involved. If convicted for failing to report the discovery and damaging an ancient site, the workers could face up to five years imprisonment.
As Amir Ganor, head of the Inspection Department at the IAA, explained in an IAA press release, “This is an extremely serious case of damage to a rare antiquity of unprecedented artistic, historical and cultural importance.”
Weighing around 2 tons and measuring about 8 feet long, the sizeable sarcophagus is sculpted on all sides with images of wreaths, bulls’ heads and naked cupids. The head of the serpent-haired Medusa appears on one end of the coffin. The head of Medusa was carved on one end of the sarcophagus.
Photo: Yoli Schwartz, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
A life-size male figure is carved on the lid. Dressed in an embroidered shirt and tunic, the figure—possibly an image of the deceased—wears his hair curled in a typical Roman hairstyle. The figure’s eyes were apparently once inlaid with precious stones, which are no longer there.
According to Dr. Gabi Mazor, a retired IAA archaeologist who inspected the find, “The high level of decoration [attests] to the family’s affluence … [J]udging by the depicted motifs, [the family] was probably not Jewish.”
Olivia Chapman is an intern at the Biblical Archaeology Society.