Rather than just leaving you postless and bereft as I work on an essay, I decided to share little slices of it over the course of the week. The essay concerns burial practices in the Levant, from the earliest evidence up to the time of Christ. The way we handle our dead is of immense cultural significance, bound up in our faith, our sense of family, our ideas of continuity, and our vision of life and the afterlife. The funeral practices of ancient Palestine are no exception.
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, a group of Neanderthals classified by their use of a certain kind of flintwork tool. The caves continued to be occupied (perhaps intermittently) well into the Mesolithic period, with evidence showing that the Natufian culture was present sometime between 13,000 and 9000 BC.
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.
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.
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.