Archaeologists Look for Traces of Missing in Ashes of Hamas Oct. 7 Attack


Yossi Cohen, a reserve colonel overseeing the effort to identify the missing, went to what remained of Ram and Lili Itamari’s home in the southern Israeli village of Kfar Aza on Oct. 15. The visit prompted him to call the head of the Antiquities Authority and ask for archaeological assistance, he said.

As Hamas gunmen stormed the village, Lili Itamari, 63, told her family that she had hidden herself in a reinforced safe room, said her son Tomer. As in other border villages, militants set the house ablaze and when the military finally arrived at Ms. Itamari’s home, they could not find any trace of her.

“I realized that with over 200 people missing, and tens of burnt buildings and bodies, we need to approach this search differently,” said Colonel Cohen.

The next day, Mr. Ajami and a team began searching Ms. Itamari’s house. In the weeks since, the archaeologists have sifted through other razed homes near the Gaza border, looking for even minute slivers of bone and teeth.

“In some ways, this work resembles our everyday practice,” Mr. Ajami said, including the use of standard equipment like sifting screens and dustpans. “But it’s also very different. The bones we usually find belong to faceless people who died thousands of years ago.”

Digging through the remains of Ms. Itamari’s home, the archaeologists found small remains that they sent for DNA analysis, allowing authorities to identify her, her son said. In another case in Be’eri, the teams uncovered teeth and blood tissue in a carpet, Mr. Ajami said.

On Monday, Colonel Cohen stepped into a burned home in Be’eri. Inside, an archaeologist and a soldier knelt in a large pile of ashes, brushing the remains into a bucket for examination.

The teams can still find remains after a person has already been buried. An Israeli military official said that in such cases, they are placed in the grave, without informing the families.

For the first week after the attack, Joe Uziel, an expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls — a collection of ancient Jewish manuscripts — sat at home “feeling helpless,” he said. When the military called for his help, he signed up.

“We do have a unique set of skills that is applicable,” Dr. Uziel said. “It’s comforting to know that I’m contributing something.”

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