Burial in Ancient Israel Part 5: Rock Cut 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 Late First Temple Period (8th to 6th century BC), we begin to see the creation of multichamber rock-cut tombs. Reached by rock-cut stairs leading to an unadorned opening, these tombs were carved into the living stone, with a central space opening into subchambers. Each subchamber was lined–often on all three sides–by low benches. Over time, narrower loculi (fit for a single body) also began to appear.

Rock cut tomb, Talpiot

The dead were wrapped in a shroud (and, on occasion, placed in a coffin) and then placed on these benches. Bodies may well have been treated with oil, herbs, resins, and other methods, many of them adapted from Israel’s extensive experience of foreign cultures. As the tombs were used and reused by families over many generations, bones would be removed to make way for new bodies. (We will address what happened to them in the next post.) Thus, we have a practical connection the Biblical phrase. “And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers” (Judges 2:10 and elsewhere). People were, quite literally, gathered to their fathers.

Because cutting a tomb of this type was extremely expensive, they were only used by wealthy Jews. That’s why they were reused for many, many generations. Tombs were almost always located outside the walls of the city, unlike some earlier burials which were inside the city and even the home.

Foreign influences began to creep into the designs of these tombs, with carved headrests on the benches and various architectural details betraying the Phoenician, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman influences over time. We may speculate that this shows the tendencies of the upper classes to adapt to foreign influences: a complaint also reflected in the scripture.

Tomb of the Sanhedria, showing loculi for bodies

After the Babylonian Captivity (c. 586 BC), these tombs vanish for a time, along with the people who built them, and do not reappear until the Hasmonean Dynasty (late 2nd century BC). In the intervening period, Mausolus built his famous tomb at Halicarnassus (c. 353 BC), this giving us a Wonder of the World, a new word (mausoleum) and a new style of tomb: a grand edifice on a raised platform with columns and a pyramid roof.

Wonder of the World: Tomb of Mausolus (Halicarnassus)

The upper class Jews began to the imitate this form, and there is a description of a tomb (subsequently destroyed) in 1 Maccabees 13:27-30:

27 And Simon built a monument over the tomb of his father and his brothers; he made it high that it might be seen, with polished stone at the front and back. 28 He also erected seven pyramids, opposite one another, for his father and mother and four brothers. 29 And for the pyramids he devised an elaborate setting, erecting about them great columns, and upon the columns he put suits of armor for a permanent memorial, and beside the suits of armor carved ships, so that they could be seen by all who sail the sea. 30 This is the tomb which he built in Modein; it remains to this day.

Josephus also describes the tomb of Simon in Antiquities of the Jews (13:210-11).

Other tombs follow a similar design: Jason’s Tomb, the Tomb of Absalom, and Zechariah’s Tomb all use the platform/column/pyramid form inspire by the tomb Halicarnassus.

Tombs of the Priestly Hezir Family (left) and Zechariah (right) in the Kidron Valley. The Mount of Olives graveyard is behind them.

Tomb of Absalom (1st century AD)

Tomb of Absalom (interior)

These tombs, of course, raise as many questions about burial as they answer, because they only reflect the practices of a small, elite group. What about the common people and the poor? They have, unfortunately, left very little mark on the archaeological record because they used burial techniques that do not leave many obvious signs. Most likely, they simply buried their dead in trench or pit graves, perhaps using older structures or adapting some of the techniques already discussed.

We know from the Gospels that Judas was buried in a “Potter’s Field” (so named because the site was used as a source of clay by potters), so by the first century simple inhumations in earth were common, and we have no reason to think this had not been the case for the lower classes for most of First and Second Temple Periods. Excavation at Qumran, which features a large cemetery filled with simple trench or pit graves, suggests the practice was widespread.

Cemetery (Qumran)


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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.


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