During a raid on a private home in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) seized a large cache of stolen or illegally excavated archaeological treasures that were destined to be sold on the black antiquities market. Among the items recovered were three magic incantation bowls, which would have been made sometime between the fourth and eighth centuries AD.
Artifacts seized from the house of an alleged illegal antiquities dealer in Jerusalem, including three magic incantation or swearing bowls. (Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority )
Raid in Jerusalem Uncovers Magic Bowls and Other Valuable Items
These magic bowls were not recovered during illicit excavations in Israel, but were probably secretly imported from other areas of the Middle East (specifically from Iraq). Inscribed with spells and magical prayers, these magic bowls would have been used to ward off curses, diseases, pest invasions, demonic visitors, or any other evil force that might be inclined to attack the bowl’s owner. The common practice was to bury a bowl beneath someone’s home, where it could provide a lifetime of protection to all the members of the family. The bowls are said to be about 1,500 years old.
In addition to the magic incantation bowls, the IAA also recovered many other rare and valuable items. The salvaged artifacts included various bone and ivory objects that have been dated to the Biblical period. These items were decorated in Phoenician style with Egyptian motifs, and included images of animals. The authorities also found hundreds of old silver and bronze coins, along with glassware and different types of ancient weapons. Chemicals used to clean ceramics and ancient metals and coins were found in the home, indicating that the illicit antiquities trafficker was planning to restore these items before putting them up for sale.
The Israel Antiquities Authority Robbery Prevention Unit led this antiquities rescue operation, which was carried out with the support and cooperation of the Jerusalem district police. While searching through the residence, they found various documents that detailed the homeowner’s association with an antiquities auction house located in central Israel. The investigative team later paid a surprise visit to that establishment, where they managed to recover even more stolen archaeological treasures that were scheduled to be sold to the highest bidder.
The magic bowls date back about 1,500 years and were originally buried under the floors of houses in order to provide protection. (Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority )
The Secrets of Ancient Magic Bowls Revealed
Magic incantation bowls like those recovered during this raid are not an unusual find. After war broke out in Iraq in the early 2000s, antiquities thieves began to steal such bowls in large numbers. Thousands of these allegedly magical objects have been listed for sale or auction in the years since, and they’ve proven to be quite popular with unethical antiquities collectors.
At the time the bowls were made the lands of Iraq were part of Mesopotamia. Based on their dating, the bowls could have been made during the pre-Islamic period, specifically during the four-century period when ancient Iraq was under the control of the Persian (Iranian) Sassanid Empire (from the mid-third century to the mid-seventh century).
According to Amir Ganor, head of the IAA Robbery Prevention Unit, these magical bowls were not mass produced, but instead customized to suit owner preferences. “The text was written by artists for a specific client, according to their personal needs,” Ganor explained. “Occasionally, as can be seen in one of the bowls, a figure of the ‘night demon’ was painted in the center of the bowl, representing the individual that the bowl was meant to ward off.”
Bowls might be made for a variety of clients, and many of the bowls recovered over the years have contained Hebrew inscriptions, making it clear they were written for Jewish clients. “The Jewish bowls draw heavily on Jewish tradition, cite verses, and even contain the earliest written attestations we have for Jewish texts like the Mishnah or benedictions,” Matthew Morgenstern, an expert in ancient language, told The Times of Israel .
Detail of one of the magic incantation bowls seized in Jerusalem. (Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority )
The three bowls found during the IAA raid were written in Aramaic, a Semitic language spoken in ancient Mesopotamia. Nevertheless, they contain quotes in Hebrew from the Hebrew Bible, meaning they could have been made by Jewish customers who lived in Mesopotamia and spoke that language. For IAA authorities, the ivory objects with Egyptian motifs were another notable discovery. These items were much older than the incantation bowls , dating to almost three thousand years in the past.
One of the most striking of these objects featured a drawing of two griffons (winged lions with human faces) standing next to each other, while another included an inscription that spoke of a line of four-winged lions marching in formation. It is believed such items were used to decorate furniture, and were especially common in the lands of ancient Israel in the eighth and ninth centuries BC.
Ivory artifacts of similar design and content have been discovered during past excavations in Samaria in the northern West Bank, and at archaeological sites like Tel Megiddo in northern Israel. A Robbery Prevention Unit spokesperson said these artifacts were likely excavated illegally from a mound in one of these regions, and had never actually been in the possession of museums or professional archaeologists.
One of the most striking artifacts featured two griffons, winged lions with human faces. (Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority )
Hunting the Black Market Hydra
As their investigation of the suspect in this case progresses, the IAA hopes to learn more about his black market connections. “Unauthorized antiquities dealers encourage looters to go out and destroy ancient sites in search of finds for sale on the antiquities market,” said IAA director Eli Eskosido. “In the name of greed, they plunder antiquity sites, removing the finds from their historical context, thus obscuring parts of human history.”
This individual arrested in Jerusalem certainly has reason to cooperate with authorities, since failing to do so could lead to a longer prison term. If he is forthcoming, it could lead to further arrests and seizures of illegally obtained archaeological treasures. Unfortunately, while they may be able to slow it down, there is no way for antiquities authorities in Israel or anywhere else to eliminate the black market for pilfered artifacts completely. The potential for quick and easy profits in the illicit antiquities game are substantial, and consequently there are always new people looking to become involved.
In Greek mythological lore, if you cut off one of the fearsome many-headed Hydra’s heads, another will quickly grow in its place. This is similar to what happens with the network of vandals, thieves, profiteers, and ethically challenged businesspeople who comprise the networks that deal in stolen antiquities . Arrest one or more participants and others will step in to take their place, ensuring this illegal but highly lucrative trade continues.
The good news is that despite the seemingly futile nature of the struggle in which the antiquities authorities are engaged, each illicit artifact recovered represents a victory for those who are doing their best to preserve and protect our shared human cultural heritage. The illicit trade in antiquities will likely remain a thriving black market industry for quite some time, but the return of the magic incantation bowls and the other valuable items seized by the IAA is still a cause for celebration.
Top image: Authorities seized stolen artifacts, including three magic incantation bowls. Source: Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority
By Nathan Falde