Burial in Ancient Israel Part 2: Early Ossuaries and Shaft Tombs

This is an ongoing series about graves and tombs in the ancient Levant, from the Paleolithic Period until the time of Christ. The entire series can be found here.

During the Chalcolithic Period (the “Copper Age”), 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, with a diversity of styles and shapes indicating they were intended to resemble to homes of the deceased, which may suggest a sense of continuity between life and death. (Then again, some ossuaries resembled animals, so perhaps not.) We shall see how these theological elements affected ideas about burial as we get into the Second Temple and New Testament times.

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 doors contained decorations representing human faces, in either paint or relief.

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.

These trends in burial continue for many year, 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.

Because fewer people were buried in these shaft tombs, we see a sudden spike in larger cemeteries during the Intermediate Bronze Age. Many of these are primary burials, but secondary burials are also found in shaft tombs. During this period, modest grave offerings are common. Pottery, metal tools and weapons, pins, bracelets, beads, and coins are common in these graves. The materials are humble, in keeping with the relative poverty of the region.

The BiblePlaces Blog has a superb photo essay showing excavation of shaft graves from the Intermediate Bronze Age. Here’s just one example, but you should see the whole thing to get a sense of the excavation, the shafts, and the burial spaces.

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 ancient Palestine?

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.

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