“When the sun had set I went and dug a grave and buried the body.”
This is the first in a series on burial customs in ancient Israel, from the earliest evidence to the burial of Jesus. Death, mourning, and burial–life, its end, and the afterlife–are central concerns of religion, and have been a large part of my own research. As the new Catholic faith took shape after Pentecost, the role of the dead would become more and more central to Christian worship. In the communion of saints, the dead remain part of the Church, and the promise of bodily resurrection made the remains of the holy intensely significant. It’s not a morbid preoccupation, but rather a glorious promise.
Death, dying, and burial loomed large in the minds of ancients. Their art, poetry, rituals, religion, and traditions frequently focused on some aspect of mortality, and the region of ancient Palestine that gave birth to Judaism and Christianity are no exception. Given the extremely complex theological issues bound up in life, death, and sin, the way ancient Jews and Christians consigned their dead to the earth can tell us something about what they thought and felt.
The earliest human remains in the Levant were found in the es-Skhul Cave on Mt.
Carmel (about 13 miles south of modern Haifa, Israel). These date to approximately 110,000 years ago, and are linked to the Mousterian culture of the Middle Paleolithic period. Excavations at es-Skhul uncovered the bodies of 10 individuals buried in pits with their knees drawn up, hands across the chest, and some objects included with the bodies. The various layers of occupation, stretching over so long a time, suggest that graves may be been reused.
Excavations at es-Skhul uncovered the bodies of 10 individuals buried in pits with their knees drawn up, hands across the chest, and some objects included with the bodies. The various layers of occupation, stretching over so long a time, suggest that graves may be been reused. The burials of es-Skhul were linked to the occupants of the nearby et-Tabun Cave, indicating that these early humans did not go far to bury their dead. The odd, mixed morphological features of these remains suggest, to some, that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals had lived contemporaneously and perhaps even interbred, resulting in a new type identified as Palaeoanthropus palastinensis, although this is disputed.
As the region entered the Neolithic period, 10,000 BC, we begin to see different kinds of burials. In homes in Jericho, skulls have been discovered beneath the floors in an extraordinary condition. Plaster had been placed over the skulls to recreate the face of the departed, with shells from the Red Sea used for eyes. The plaster was painted to render facial details, including eyebrows and facial hair. Some lower jaws were removed and reconstructed so the base could be flat, indicating that the item was meant to be displayed, possibly in a niche or shrine.
The Jericho skull residing in the British Museum has been thoroughly examined, and by using CT scans, 3-D printing, and forensic reconstruction, they’ve produced a recreation of the individual’s face, claiming it belongs to “a 40-something man with a broken nose.”
At the same time, monumental structures were being erected to the dead. The most common was the dolmen: upright rocks (usually two, but sometimes more) with another rock laid across the top, forming a kind of table structure. Hundreds have been found just in the Golan Heights, and more dot the landscape of modern Israel. One or two people may be buried in this kind of tomb, and sometimes earth was piled around the dolmen to bury it, thus creating a barrow. This marks a major shift in the way the dead were memorialized, and they continued to appear until at least the 4th millennium BC.
Next: Ossuaries and cists.