Early Ossuaries and Shaft Tombs: Burial in Ancient Israel

During the Chalcolithic Period (the “Copper Age,” roughly beginning 5000BC), a new kind of burial started appearing along the coastal plain, at sites like Azor, Bene-Berak, and Hedera. This marks the first appearance of ossuaries, which will become a key element in the treatment of the dead. These early ossuaries are made of clay, and often designed to resemble a small house. The diversity of styles and shapes indicate that the ossuaries were made to resemble to homes of the deceased, which may suggest a sense of continuity between life and death.

Ossuary of “Joseph Caiaphas” (Wikimedia Commons)

Ossuaries are not meant to contain entire bodies, but only the bones. Along with the discovery of the skulls of Jericho, they show the increasing use of two-stage burials. In the first stage, a person is either buried or placed in a niche or cave until the flesh decays, leaving only the bones. In the second stage, the bones are collected and reburied, or gathered into these boxes and placed in niches dug out of sandstone. The openings of the ossuaries were large enough for a skull (the bone with the largest circumference) to be placed inside. Miniature ossuaries have been found in larger ones as some kind of offering. Doors were sometimes fitted to these openings, and some of these contained decorations representing human faces, in either paint or relief.

In November 1990, twelve ossuaries were found in a cave in south Jersusalem. Two bore the name Caiaphas, and the most ornate (pictured) was inscribed “Joseph, son of Caiaphas” twice. Inside were the bones of a male in his 60s. Many speculate that these are the remains of the Caiaphas, the antagonist of Jesus from the Gospels.

At roughly the same time the first ossuaries appeared, people in the Levant began using cist burials as well. A cist is, basically, a square hole dug in the ground and lined with stone slabs, sometimes with a slab over the top. Sometimes several appear in a row, and we may assume these were for family burials.

Cist burial. From the dig report on Ashqelon, Barne‘a B–C
(Amir Golani)

These trends in burial continue for many years, and are joined during the Bronze Age (roughly beginning in 3000 BC) by shaft burials in which a vertical hole was dug in limestone, sandstone, or soil. If it was dug in soil, the walls were lined with stone. A chamber opened at the bottom of this shaft, and was blocked with a large stone. Chambers have been discovered in various shapes (rectangular, circular, and amorphous) and sizes. Three, four, or even more rectangular chambers may branch off from this main chamber, providing niches for the dead.

Bab edh-Dhra Shaft Grave (Bible Places)

In some tombs, bones were heaped at the center, with pottery and utensils arrayed around the perimeter. Food has been discovered in some vessels, and there are some suggestions that they provide evidence for a final meal with the dead. Eating with the departed in a common practice in folk culture throughout the world. Are these pots, jugs, and utensils evidence of the practice in anent Palestine?

Cairn burials were also found at this location. People were buried in shallow graves, which were then stacked with dirt and stones and capped with pile of rock. Tumuli–which are essentially barrows: graves heaped with small rocks and soil–also start emerging during this period. Thousands of tumuli have been found in the Negev Highlands.

There are no grand tombs filled with treasures, but rather small offerings intended as gifts for the dead. May we assume these were simply treasures associated with the deceased without implying any metaphysical, cultic, or religious aspect to the offerings? Or does the proximity of the region to Egypt suggest some kind of ties to a developing and vivid sense of the afterlife and the objects one would need to make the journey? As we get into the Second Temple period, the answers to these questions become slightly clearer.

This is part of 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.