Moshe Ajami, a veteran Israeli archaeologist, has spent decades searching the country’s southern desert to excavate lost ruins dating back more than 2,000 years. But in recent weeks he has focused on digging through the ashes of homes burned by Hamas terrorists in last month’s surprise attack, searching for the bones, blood and teeth of Israelis still missing.
“As archaeologists, we are trained to identify human remains that others might miss,” Mr. Ajami, deputy director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said in an interview in his office in Jerusalem.
The soft-spoken Mr. Ajami is one of about 15 archaeologists, with experience in digs ranging from ancient manuscripts to buried tombs, who have mobilized to try to put an end to Israelis still waiting for news of their relatives. The team has so far found the remains of at least 60 people, he said, most of them in Beeri, a village of 1,000 residents that suffered devastating losses in the attack.
The October 7 assault left around 1,400 dead, 240 kidnapped and many missing in Israel. The country is still in shock, with thousands of people evacuated from their homes and a delayed response from the government. A few weeks after the disaster, some bodies have not yet been identified and their families remain in the dark.
Israeli health officials, accustomed to dealing with a few dozen cases a week, have been overwhelmed by the influx of bodies, some of which, they say, have been desecrated or burned. While the military leads identification efforts, a handful of independent organizations and initiatives — ranging from birdwatching groups to K-9 units — are scouring the affected area for signs of the missing.
Yossi Cohen, a reserve colonel overseeing efforts to identify the missing, visited what remained of Ram and Lili Itamari’s home in the southern Israeli village of Kfar Aza on October 15. The visit prompted him to call the head of the Antiquities Authority and ask for archaeological help, he said.
As Hamas gunmen stormed the village, Lili Itamari, 63, told her family she hid in a reinforced safe room, her son Tomer said. As in other border villages, militants burned the house and when the military finally arrived at Ms. Itamari’s home, they found no trace of her.
“I realized that with over 200 people missing and dozens of buildings and bodies burned, we needed to approach this search differently,” Colonel Cohen said.
The next day, Mr. Ajami and a team began searching Ms. Itamari’s house. In the weeks that followed, archaeologists searched other razed houses near the Gaza border, looking for even tiny fragments of bones and teeth.
“In some ways, this work resembles our daily practice,” Mr. Ajami said, including the use of standard equipment like sieves 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 house, archaeologists found small remains that they sent for DNA analysis, allowing authorities to identify her, her son said. In another case in Beeri, teams discovered teeth and blood tissue in a carpet, Mr Ajami said.
On Monday, Colonel Cohen entered a burned house in Beeri. Inside, an archaeologist and a soldier knelt in a large pile of ashes, putting the remains into a bucket for examination.
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 scrolls – stayed at home “feeling helpless,” he said. When the soldiers asked him for help, he signed up.
“We have a unique set of applicable skills,” Dr. Uziel said. “It’s comforting to know that I’m contributing something.”