A 2,000-year-old sarcophagus, lead-lined and dating back to the Roman era, has been discovered by archaeologists working in the Gaza strip. Located just 500 meters (0.3 miles) from the sea along the Northern Gaza coast, the sarcophagus is part of a large Roman necropolis that was discovered only last year.
The excavation project is being supervised by Première Urgence Internationale, a French humanitarian organization that supports cultural heritage preservation projects in Gaza under a program called INTIQAL, and funded by the British Council, Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities' director of excavation and museums Jehad Yasin told CNN.
So far, around 90 individual and collective graves have been found at the ancient 3,500-square-meter (37,673-square-foot) site – but experts believe this one is special, likely belonging to a prominent individual.
That theory is based on the location of the burial, Yasin explained – but perhaps strengthening this conclusion is the fact that in Roman times, as through later centuries, lead coffins were considered a “fancy and expensive” way to be buried, Laura Burnett, from the UK’s Portable Antiquities Scheme, told the BBC in 2017.
For now, though, we’ll have to wait to see who was interred in such a remarkable fashion, with a statement from the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities confirming that the sarcophagus had not yet been opened, according to Reuters. Instead, the coffin has been put in a protective wooden container, ready for further study by local and international experts.
According to Yasin, the analysis of the discovery, which will include bone identification, will likely take around two months.
Despite the turmoil that is near-synonymous with the region, the state of the sarcophagus was “exceptional,” according to a press release from the Ministry. This is thanks to the fact that it remained sealed and closed throughout its 2,000 years underground – a timeframe that is evidenced by the clay jars and other artifacts found in the cemetery, Ministry spokesman Tareq Al-Af told Reuters.
While the necropolis itself seems to have been something of a serendipitous discovery – it was originally found in 2022 by a group of construction workers on a housing project – its existence is far from surprising. As an important trading spot for many civilizations throughout history, Gaza is so full of ancient relics that people almost literally trip over them: last year alone saw both part of a 4,500-year-old statue of a Canaanite goddess discovered in a farmer’s field, and an ornate Byzantine mosaic discovered by accident while trying to plant a tree.
No wonder, then, that the team behind the new discovery say they expect to find much more from the necropolis. After all, so far only ten burials have been opened for excavation – and according to Yasin, there are likely more sarcophagi waiting to be uncovered.