Moshe Ajami, a veteran Israeli archaeologist, has spent decades sifting through the country’s southern desert to excavate lost ruins that date back more than 2,000 years. But in the past couple of weeks, he has been focused on searching the ashes of homes burned down by Hamas terrorists during last month’s surprise attack, looking for the bones, blood and teeth of Israelis who remain missing.
“As archaeologists, we are trained to identify human remains that others may miss,” said Mr. Ajami, the deputy head of Israel’s Antiquities Authority, during an interview in his office in Jerusalem.
The soft-spoken Mr. Ajami is one of roughly 15 archaeologists, with experience in excavations ranging from ancient scrolls to buried tombs, who have mobilized to try to provide closure for Israelis still awaiting news of their loved ones. The team has recovered the remains of at least 60 people so far, he said, most of them in Be’eri, a village of 1,000 people that suffered devastating losses in the attack.
The Oct. 7 assault left approximately 1,400 dead, 240 abducted and scores missing in Israel. The country is still reeling, with thousands evacuated from their homes, and a lagging government response. Weeks after the disaster some bodies have yet to be identified and their families remain in the dark.
Israeli health officials accustomed to handling a few dozen cases per week have been overwhelmed by the influx of bodies, some of which, they say, were desecrated or burned. While the military is leading the identification efforts, a handful of organizations and independent initiatives — ranging from groups of bird watchers to K-9 units — are combing the affected area looking for traces of the missing.
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.”