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On Trail of Grave Robbers, Archaeologists Uncover Tomb, Tunnels

November 29, 1995

HIRBET BURGIN, Israel (AP) _ With a mud-caked 9-mm pistol sticking out of his belt, Amir Ganor knelt in the musty underground room and heaved back a flat stone. Behind it lay a chamber where Jewish rebels hid from the Romans during a second-century rebellion.

``This was the only chamber the grave robbers didn’t find,″ sighed Ganor, a 28-year-old archaeologist. ``Everywhere else, they took anything of any value.″

The newly discovered network of underground tunnels, with secret chambers and at least one trap door, was carved into the isolated hilltop some 20 miles southwest of Jerusalem.

In these Judean foothills, the charismatic leader Bar Kochba rallied the Jews to rebel against the Romans between A.D. 132 and 135. The Romans crushed the revolt and sent the Jews into exile.

During the rebellion, families carved underground rooms and linked them with a maze of narrow tunnels. Triangular niches carved in the walls held oil lamps, Ganor said. Some still have soot visible above them.

While similar tunnels have been found, this one had a feature never seen before: Ganor pointed out a slot carved into the soft limestone where a round stone could be rolled to trap any Roman legionnaire who entered. A piece of the stone was still in place.

The rebels carved out pits in the floor to stockpile food and water for a siege. Archaeologists believe the rebels also would take refuge in them if the Romans succeeded in entering the tunnels.

The tunnels _ where one or two families are believed to have lived for several years _ were discovered a month ago by archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Unit for the Prevention of Grave Robberies. The find was made public Tuesday.

The 15-member unit, made up mostly of former army commandos, is led by Boaz Zissu and his deputy Ganor, both in their late 20s and both with close-cropped hair, loose T-shirts and jeans.

The unit had been hot on the trail of grave robbers a month ago when they came upon them digging above the tomb entrance. The robbers, believed to be Palestinian peasants, got away.

Zissu admitted that pursuing the robbers was one of the best ways of uncovering such sites.

``They can (search) the ground better than any archaeologist,″ he said. ``They’re people of the earth.″

While the grave robbers plundered the tunnels, they apparently didn’t manage to reach a nearby tomb that had remained unopened for almost 2,000 years.

Over the next few days, the Israelis dug and reached the sealed opening of the tomb about 10 feet down.

``I started imagining what would be inside. Maybe there were drawings, or coins or a treasure!″ Ganor recalled.

They broke through the small stone door and found themselves in an underground antechamber with nine sealed niches, each with untouched skeletons inside. There were dozens of clay lamps, some in the same condition as when they were placed in the tomb more than 1,800 years ago. They also found glass jars that probably held perfume.

Leading to the opening of the burial chamber was an arched waiting room and 12 steep steps that archaeologists believe were used as bleachers for a funeral.

The tomb was carved in the 1st century B.C. and used continuously for about 450 years, probably by a wealthy family, Ganor said.

Ganor said there are thousands of burial caves and antiquity sites in the Judean hills, but it is rare to uncover one that hasn’t been plundered.

The archaeologists plan to cover over the tomb after recording and photographing it.

``Why bother the dead more? Let them lie,″ Ganor said.

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