Ironically, it's because of these grave robbers that the Antiquities Authority, together with the Jewish National Fund, is opening a newly excavated ancient village this weekend in the Judean hills south of Beit Shemesh.
The organizers have planned a carnival at the site, called Hurvat Itri, this Saturday and Sunday (March 6 and 7) to coincide with Purim and the annual "Rural Food Festival" of the Yoav and Judean foothill communities.
"But this is the hottest area in the country for plundering ancient sites," says Amir Ganor, 35, the country's chief archeological cop.
As head of the Antiquities Authority's Unit for Prevention of Theft, Ganor says his dozen armed agents face a daunting task, since there are an estimated 50,000 archeological sites ripe for plunder in the Holy Land.
"One of them is right here," Ganor says, leading the way to Hurvat Itri, today a magnificently restored village from the Second Temple period. A hilltop like many others, it seemed to be a major draw for the grave robbers. Night after night in the late 1990s they dug up its ancient stones in search of treasure. In 1999, at least three gangs from the West Bank just two kilometers away were caught and jailed, but the looting continued. Driving them was a desire to find rare coins from the Bar Kochba revolt. Known as a sela in Hebrew or bawabeh in Arabic, each silver coin could fetch anywhere between $40,000 and $350,000.
In 2000, the Antiquities Authority began excavating the site, which yielded a wealth of undisturbed finds as well as what archeologists call the "missing link" to Jewish life here 1,870 years ago.
In the heart of the 50,000-dunam Adullam Cavern Park, near Moshav Tzafririm, the site contains beautiful ruins, including numerous ritual baths, decorated burial caves, and an amazing network of subterranean tunnels.
Ganor and archeologist Dr. Boaz Zissu led excavations for two years with the aid of unemployed locals - and even reformed grave robbers. One, named Sayid el-Amneh, proved to be invaluable in helping discover a total of eight underground tunnel networks. Three of these had not been touched since the Bar Kochba rebels hid there.
"It was the first time I was able to see a sealed tunnel network," Ganor says. "Items were lying on the ground where the rebels had left them. We simply had to come and gather them up. It was all very exciting."
There are about 6,000 known coins from the Bar Kochba period, nearly all discovered by grave robbers. In 1986, the Antiquities Authority did not have even one discovered in situ. Zissu and Ganor were able to find 1,000 from various periods on this site, including three extremely rare silver sela coins.
As valuable a find as it was, the place did not even have a name. It was referred to as Khirbet Hoch, after a family from Tzurif. But the mystery was solved when an ostracon was unearthed with the name Atra. From this, archeologists deduced that it was Kfar Atra, or the Caphethra mentioned in Josephus Flavius's historical account.
Apparently, one day in the summer of 69 CE, Cerealius, one of Emperor Vespasian's officers, led a small force of cavalry and foot troops and ravaged the village of Caphethra. The event was such a minor affair in the midst of the great revolt that Josephus recalled Caphethra as a place "which calls itself a town," adding that Cerealius vanquished it "in his stride and set it on fire."
After destroying the Second Temple in Jerusalem and carting off some of the survivors to slavery, the Romans were content. They did not cleanse the villages of the Judean Hills - a strategic mistake that would come back to haunt them 70 years later, when Bar Kochba organized his revolt from there.
Survivors rebuilt the village on a smaller scale and farmed grapes and figs. The hillside is speckled with numerous vats where the grapes were pressed. But the community added something new: a synagogue. At least this is what archeologists believe to be the purpose of a large hall facing Jerusalem.
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