Archaeologists in Gaza unearth large cemetery containing rare lead sarcophagi

Palestinian experts suspect Roman-era social elites are buried at the site

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Palestinian workers in the Gaza Strip have found dozens of ancient graves, including two sarcophagi made of lead, in a cemetery dating back about 2,000 years to the Roman Empire.

Archaeologists described the site as the largest cemetery discovered in Gaza.

Workers found the site in 2022 during the construction of an Egyptian-funded housing project near Jabaliya, in the northern Gaza Strip.

Since then, crews have worked to excavate the 2,700-square-metre site with the support of French experts.

Now, what was once an inconspicuous construction lot – surrounded by a grove of nondescript blocks of flats – has become a gold mine for archaeologists looking to understand more about the Gaza Strip.

Gaza, a coastal enclave home to about 2.3 million people, has a rich history stemming from its location on ancient trade routes between Egypt and the Levant. But a number of factors – Israeli occupation, Hamas’ 16-year control of the territory and rapid urban growth – endanger many of the besieged strip’s archaeological treasures.

The discovery of 60 graves at the site in January marked a major finding, archaeologists said. That number has swelled to 135.

Rene Elter, a French archaeologist leading the dig, said researchers have studied more than 100 of the graves.

“All of these tombs have almost already been excavated and have revealed a huge amount of information about the cultural material and also about the state of health of the population and the pathologies from which this population may have suffered,” said Mr Elter, the head of archaeology for Intiqal, a programme managed by the French non-profit Premiere Urgence Internationale.

He pointed to the sarcophagi made of lead – one featuring ornate grape leaves, the other with images of dolphins – as exceptional finds.

“The discovery of lead sarcophagi here is a first for Gaza,” he said.

'Gazans deserve to tell their stories'

Given the rarity of the lead tombs, Palestinian archaeologists, including Fadel Al Otul, suspect that social elites are buried there.

Mr Al Otul said the cemetery probably used to be in a city, as Romans used to place cemeteries near urban centres.

Alongside the sarcophagi, Mr Elter’s team is restoring unearthed skeletons and piecing together shards of clay jars.

The skeletons discovered at the site will be sent out of Gaza for additional analysis, Mr Al Otul said. The remains are set to return to the Hamas-led Ministry of Antiquities and Tourism.

Mr Elter said the territory needs a dedicated team to oversee archaeological activity in Gaza.

“The Gazans deserve to tell their stories,” he said. “Gaza boasts a plethora of potential archaeological sites, but monitoring each one, given the rapid pace of development, is no small feat.”

Updated: September 25, 2023, 3:36 AM