Burial in Ancient Israel: The Bronze Age

Excavation at Bab ed-Dhrah cemetery

The Intermediate Bronze Age is so heavily marked by a rise in lavish burials that it’s one of the central features of the age. One of the largest ancient cemeteries in the Holy Land is at Bab edh-Dhra’, where 20,000 tombs have been discovered, including many shaft graves filled with grave offerings.

An unusual feature of this location is a charnel house: a room 35×17 feet, with bones and pottery stacked at the center, and an entryway paved with skulls.

Plan of tomb A72, Bab edh-Dhra’ (Nancy Lapp, 1978)
Remains, tomb A72s, Bab edh-Dhra’ (Nancy Lapp, 1978)

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.

Bronze Age tumulus at Makhtesh Ramon

The biggest news of recent years was the revelation of the Philistine cemetery at Ashkelon, on the southern coast Israel, where the graves of 211 individuals were uncovered. They lived between the 11th and 8th centuries B.C., and the digs provided a great deal of data about life and death in this vital period of Biblical history. The graves found here were slightly different, with few grave goods and no disruptions. People were laid out, sometimes singly, sometimes with others, and not disturbed again. Some remains were accompanied by jewelry, jugs, and perfume. There were few children found, and these were covered with a layer of broken pottery. The sheer volume of the discovery has added immeasurably to what we know of the Philistines. The full reports of the excavation can be downloaded here for free.

Ashkelon skull (Tsafrir Abayov for the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon)

As we can see, a rich array of funeral practices was observed in the region as we progress through the Bronze Age. Some tombs were inside of city limits, close to homes. Some were outside. As the Bronze Age continues, there’s a rise in the appearance of larger stone tombs holding as many as 40 bodies.

The methods of internment in these tombs was unusual. People would be laid out in the center of the tomb on a mat (and, in once case, on a bed), usually flat on the back, sometimes with knees raised. Food and other offerings were left with the body. Jewelry was rare, but personal items like combs, oil, and decorated boxes were quite common. The tombs was closed after each burial and then reopened for the next. Bones and objects from the previous burial were pushed off the sides to form a heap, and the next body laid in the center. As time went on, large mounds of intermingled bones and objects began to line the walls of these tombs.

During the Middle Bronze Age, the region came under the sway of the Hyksos, we begin to see warriors interred with their horse. Such tombs have been found at Jericho and Tell el-Ajjul, but are exceptional rather than commonplace, and represent a clear foreign influence.

Example of a Hyksos horse burial (Tell el-Dab’a, Egypt)

As the region entered the Iron Age (approximately 1200 BC), the people we call the Israelites appear as a force in Palestine. The fading of imperial rule allows local people to build their own authority, and we enter the period described in Judges, leading to the formation of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The Israelites adapt some of the burial customs they find in the region, and reuse preexisting graves. None of the more exotic techniques–such as skull decoration or mounted burials–are used by the Israelites, but it’s fair to say most of the techniques described thus far were in use at some point, and in some places, during the period covered by the Old Testament.

In addition, new techniques begin to emerge that will become more standard for the area, with adaptations that will be used through Greek and Roman periods and into the time of Christ.

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.

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