Looting the Holy Land

While I agree with many of the facts presented in the documentary, it is in some ways very one-sided and ignores much of what actually happened.


By Joe Zias
December 2010

1. We are accused of looting the West Bank and moving the artifacts to Israeli museums. From 1948 to 1967 when the West Bank was under Jordanian rule, all objects excavated there under Jordan rule were not left in the West Bank but were transferred to Amman, Jordan where they are located until this day. Artifacts from the Israeli excavations in the West Bank,aside from Jerusalem, are under a governmentally controlled body working according to Jordanian law and are housed and cataloged separately from those found in Israel. Excavated antiquities from the Sinai were all given back to the Egyptians following the peace agreement. We kept nothing that was in governmental hands.

2. While working for 25 years as curator at the Rockefeller Museum (RM), those few antiquities that had not been transferred to Amman were kept in a special room that was not open to the public. One day while carrying out an inventory of objects from Tel Dotan, which had been excavated prior to 1967 by folks from Wheaton College, I saw that there was a discrepancy between the packing lists and objects found therein. I immediately notified those in charge along with the US excavators that many objects were missing and presumably stolen from the sealed boxes. Excavators in the US related shortly thereafter that the division of antiquities within the Palestine Antiquities Authority in Jerusalem happened to notice that many objects with their catalog numbers were already on sale in the antiquities shops in east Jerusalem, pilfered by employees in the PAM whose obligation was to protect them. A few years later Tel Dotan, which had been purchased by folks in the US for archaeological excavation, was now for sale. Antiquities dealers and investors came to the RM to see what had been found there in hopes of attracting more buyers/investors and upping the price of an important historical site in the West Bank. I was the one who allowed the potential buyers to see the material since it did not belong to us; we were but caretakers of the finds.

3. There is a lot of footage on Hisham’s Palace in Jericho. Some are under the impression that it was looted by us and transferred to the RM after 1967; in actuality, it was excavated by the British during the Mandate period (1919-1948) and transferred to the Rockefeller Museum and exhibited where it remains today. An international body incidentally governed the RM until a few months before the 1967 war when it was taken over by the Jordanian government. Muslims replaced non-muslims in charge there, and there was never in the history of the RM, which opened in the 1930's, any Islamic archaeologist in their employ.

4. The segment where they show the IL guide talking about excavations along the Western Wall speaks as if its location underneath the Al Aqsa mosque is a cheap shot; it is nowhere near the mosque nor is it under the mount itself but runs parallel to it and totally outside the mount.

5. The segment where the Israel Antiquities Authority decided to thoroughly search the area between Jericho and Qumran, which was being given back to the Palestinians, is unfortunately accurate, and, aside from me (I personally refused to cooperate in such an endeavor), all my colleagues in the IAA cooperated. The director was not happy with my refusal. This “militarily run” operation cost the IL taxpayer an enormous amount of money and aside from one find, the so-called “Cave of the Warrior,” produced nothing of any scientific value. Local Palestinians looking for more Dead Sea Scrolls had looted all the caves years earlier. It was a total waste of money and an affront to the Palestinians.

6. Looting in the region, which the IAA has largely prevented, is relatively benign when compared to the eastern side of the Dead Sea where it’s almost a cottage industry. Two vast cemeteries immediately come to mind, Kh. Qazone from the Nabatean period and Bab edh-Drah from the Early Bronze period, the former containing 3,500 or more graves is practically devoid of any untouched graves due to looting. Since Jordanian law, unlike Israeli law, does not permit the sale of antiquities nor their transport abroad, then where are these looted objects sold? One has to travel to London, England where there are large rail containers filled with these antiquities looted from the eastern borders of the ancient Holy Land. According to Israeli law, their final destination, the importation of antiquities via antiquity dealers in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, is not against the law.

7. Lastly, had the filmmakers addressed these thorny issues, what should have been an important documentary becomes a very one-sided attempt to sidestep the very same topic they are confronting. While the documentary does not fall into the “Amazing Dis-Grace” category of some of the recent blatantly dishonest documentaries on Biblical Archaeology, their failure to address the above issues and their misinterpretation of them bring it into a close second.

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