Large Roman-era Sarcophagus Unearthed in Ashkelon

Building contractors unearthed and then concealed a unique sarcophagus dating to the Roman period in the southern coastal city of Ashkelon. From a press release from the Israel Antiquities Authority:

A unique and extremely impressive stone sarcophagus, about 1,800 years old, was exposed at a building site in the new neighborhood of villas currently going up in Ashkelon. This occurred during an operation carried out on Tuesday night (September 1) by inspectors of the IAA’s Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery and patrol officers and detectives from the Ashkelon police station. This is one of the rarest sarcophagi ever discovered in Israel. The coffin, which is made of hard limestone, weighing about 2 tons and 2.5 meters long, is sculpted on all sides. A life-size figure of a person is carved on the sarcophagus’ lid. The sarcophagus was repeatedly struck by a tractor in different places, scarring the stone and damaging the decorations sculpted by an artist on its sides. Dr. Gabi Mazor, a retired IAA archaeologist and an expert on classical periods, described the scene on the sarcophagus: "One side of the sarcophagus lid is adorned with the carved image of a man leaning on his left arm. He is wearing a short-sleeved shirt decorated with embroidery on the front. A tunic is wrapped around his waist. The figure’s eyes were apparently inlaid with precious stones that have disappeared and the hair is arranged in curls, in a typical Roman hairstyle. On the other side of the lid is a carved relief of a metal amphora (a vessel used for transporting liquids such as wine) from which there are intertwining tendrils bearing grape clusters and grape leaves. The sarcophagus itself, which was more severely damaged by the tractor, is decorated with, among other things, wreaths and images of bulls’ heads, naked Cupids, and the head of the monstrous female figure Medusa which includes remains of hair together with snakes, part of a commonly held belief in the Roman period that she protects the deceased." According to Mazor, "Such sarcophagi were usually placed in or next to a family mausoleum. The high level of decoration attested to the family’s affluence, which judging by the depicted motifs was probably not Jewish."

The press release continues to describe the culpability of the construction workers. The Jerusalem Post has a 2-minute video showing the artifacts. The Times of Israel article includes several photographs. The sarcophagus and lid during the initial cleaning Sarcophagus lid
Photo by Yoli Shwartz, courtesy Israel Antiquities Authority


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