updated 6/9/2004 4:05:57 PM ET 2004-06-09T20:05:57

A priceless 1,500-year-old Byzantine-era artifact was stolen early Wednesday from an archaeological park near Tel Aviv, police said.

The thieves took a part of the floor of a glass kiln, one of only three still in existence in Israel, police said. They suspect the theft had been commissioned by a private antiques collector.

“This was a part of the glass kiln that served the Byzantine city of Apolonia 1,500 years ago,” said archaeologist Hagi Yohanan, director of the Apolonia park built over the ruins of the city.

After the 4th-century split in the Roman Empire, the Holy Land came under the rule of Christian Byzantium, until it was conquered by the Arabs in A.D. 636. Archaeologically, the period is noted for the building of many monasteries and churches across the country.

Yohanan said it was impossible to value the piece that had been stolen, because nothing like it had ever gone on the market.

The thieves apparently used a hammer to break a 20-by-20-inch (50-by-50-centimeter) panel out of the floor. “It looks deliberate and not like vandalism,” Yohanan said. The floor was 6 feet (2 meters) square.

During the firing of the kiln, the floor would be covered with the raw glass, creating a large tile that took on the appearance of green crystal. Glass finds from this period are rare.

“This is the only one that was accessible for the public to view and apparently also to steal,” Yohanan said.

The glass panel was out of doors, surrounded by a small fence, and was not heavily guarded, police spokesman Gil Kleiman said, adding that so far there were no suspects.

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