125 tombs found after chance discovery of ancient Roman-era cemetery in Gaza


Archaeologists in Gaza have unearthed at least 125 tombs, many with skeletons inside, and two lead sarcophagi at a 2,000-year-old Roman cemetery discovered there by chance last year.

The narrow coastal strip has a rich history as a trading hub dating back to the ancient Egyptians through the crusades, but conflict and impoverishment in the Palestinian territory under Israeli blockade, home to around 2 million people, have hindered efforts to find and safeguard archaeological treasures.

Palestinian workers have been digging at the ancient burial site in Gaza, with the backing of French organizations, since it was uncovered last year by construction crews preparing for an Egyptian-funded housing project.

According to Jamal Abdu Raida, the general director of antiquities at the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, at least 125 tombs have been found so far at the site which stretches over 43,000 square feet (4,000 square meters). Raida, who described the discoveries as “unprecedented,” said last week that the necropolis is believed to include the remains of high-level Roman officials.

An expert at the French School of Biblical and Archeological Research, Fadel Al-A’utul, told Reuters one of the sarcophagi was decorated with images of grapes and the other with dolphins. The team is cleaning the skeletons and trying to put together pieces of clay jars they also found.

“It is the first time in Palestine we have discovered a cemetery that has 125 tombs, and it is the first time in Gaza we have discovered two ssarcophaguses made of lead,” he said in an interview published Monday.

“We need funds to preserve this archaeological site so that history does not get washed away,” he added. He said protecting the site would help “prove to the whole world the existence of Palestinian culture and heritage.”

Work at the archaeological site is set to continue for several months, and is “already proving to be promising,” according to the French School of Biblical and Archeological Research.

Authorities in the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the militant group Hamas, said in recent days that the discovery of a rare sarcophagus molded in lead was the second of its kind during the excavation, and that the ministry would examine the latest find.

Premiere Urgence, a French aid group helping to oversee the work at the site, said earlier that the first sarcophagus had remained sealed “in an exceptional state of preservation,” and would give insight into burial methods and funeral rituals in Roman times.


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