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Police fingerprint experts called in to understand ancient artisans

TJI Pick
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Published: 13 December 2022

Last updated: 5 March 2024

In an unusual collaboration, archaeologists in Israel are working with police to analyse prints left on fifth- or sixth-century pottery shards.

On a chilly, rainy afternoon in September 2020, two Israeli police cars and a motorcycle, their red lights flashing and sirens blaring, pulled up to an archaeological dig in Motza, a neighbourhood in the mountains west of Jerusalem.

Four police officials emerged from the vehicles and approached the excavation—but they weren’t responding to a crime. They’d come to examine ancient fingerprints as part of an unconventional, ongoing collaboration between Israel’s police department and the Tel Moza Expedition Project team.

Beginning in November 2019, excavations at the three-acre site uncovered traces of structures and artifacts from the early Byzantine period (the end of the fourth century to the beginning of the seventh century): a church, an olive press, a wine press and a kiln. An alcove adjacent to the kiln contained clay fragments of lamps and roof tiles, with remnants of jugs and bowls lying nearby.

Featuring images of palm trees, the lamp fragments caught the attention of Shulamit Terem, an archaeologist and ceramics expert at the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). More than one-third of the 230 shards were covered in centuries-old fingerprints.

“It was striking,” Terem says. “There were so many, and they were so clear.”

To learn more details, from how many potters worked at the site to the artisans’ age and gender, the archaeologists turned to police investigators—experts on the science of fingerprints.

Forensics fingerprint examiner Ido Hefetz was surprised to be summoned to Motza from police headquarters in Jerusalem, where he’s a fingerprint examiner in the forensics division.

Hefetz homed in on the prints’ ridges and valleys, making matches to combine partials into a whole.

Hefetz could plainly see that the fingerprints were predominantly of the left and right thumbs, with their depth revealing something of the potters’ technique.

What Fingerprints Tell Us About Jerusalem’s Ancient Artisans (Smithsonian)

Photo: Fingerprints left behind by the lamps' creator or creators (Nora Rajs / Division of Identification and Forensic Science, Israel Police)

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