Tag Archives: ossuary

Rujm el-Hiri Revisited

I wrote about Rujm el-Hiri in a post on May 2009 and concluded with a variety of suggestions about what the structure may have been used for. Now Dr. Rami Arav who has been excavating at nearby Bethsaida since the late 1980s has proposed a new theory reported in the Nov/Dec issue of Biblical Archaeology Review based on a broader look at the local Chalcolithic civilization (4500-3500BCE) and on similarities he noticed with more distant cultures.

Rujm el-Hiri consists of four concentric circles, the outermost more than 150 meters across, made up of an estimated 42,000 tons of basalt rock. Experts believe that these are the remains of massive walls that once rose as high as 8 meters (think of the ruins of the walls of the storehouses and the Roman camps at Masada).

Excavations at Rujm el-Hiri by archaeologist Mike Freikman of Hebrew University in Jerusalem over the past five years have yielded almost no material remains of the kind that are commonly found at most archaeological sites. The lack of artifacts confirms that the site was never inhabited and so was not a town or fortress but most likely a ritual center — possibly linked to a cult of the dead. What is the reason to go to such great lengths to construct something that was never inhabited, whose location was not strategic?

Chalcolithic Ossuary, British Museum

Burial in the Chalcolithic period was in ossuaries, small clay boxes used to house the bones. Stone ossuaries were seen next in the Second Temple period for Jewish burial - bodies were buried for an initial period of about a year in temporary tombs until the flesh decomposed and only the bones remained. In archaeology, this process is called excarnation. But archaeologists have not found evidence of such preliminary graves from Chalcolithic times.

 

Artifact from Hamatmon Cave, courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority

Arav found a clue in the treasure of Chalcolithic bronze artifacts discovered in a cave, in the cliffs above the Dead Sea. He looked at a small copper cylinder with a square opening like a gate with figures of birds perched on the edge and saw it as a ceremonial miniature of an excarnation site.

He also noticed a similarity to round, high-walled structures used by Zoroastrians in Iran and India, known as dokhmas or towers of silence. These are structures used for a process known as sky burial — the removal of flesh from corpses by vultures. The winged scavengers perch on the high circular walls, swoop in when the pallbearers depart and can peck a corpse clean in a couple of hours.

Further evidence is a mural showing vultures and headless human corpses several millennia earlier in southern Turkey, where the local Chalcolithic residents are thought to have originated suggesting that excarnation was practiced there.

Arav’s answer is that excarnation was used — vultures did the job. To this day there are Griffon vultures and other large birds of prey that swoop above the valleys of the Golan. Arav concludes that Rujm el-Hiri was an excarnation facility.

Arav also identified a smaller structure consisting of concentric stone circles on a promontory overlooking the Jordan River as an excarnation site, outer circle is 50 meters in diameter and the inner circle 33 meters. Another round structure was recently identified at Palmahim where only ossuaries were found.

It may be hard to come to terms with Arav’s theory given the Judeo-Christian view of honoring the dead and human body but excarnation is practised in other parts of the world and it’s important to remember that the Chalcolithic period predates the Israelites by as much as three millenia.

A Morning on Mount Scopus

Construction of the campus of the Hebrew University began in 1918 on land purchased from the Gray Hill estate. The dedication ceremony was held in 1925 in the presence of many dignitaries, including Lord Balfour, Viscount Allenby, Sir Herbert Samuel, Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook, the poet Haim Nahman Bialik, Ahad Ha’am, Dr. Chaim Weizmann and many others.

A design for the university campus by Sir Patrick Geddes positioned the university buildings on the slopes of Mount Scopus, below a domed, hexagonal Great Hall recalling the Star of David, as a counterpoint to the octagonal Dome of the Rock in the Old City. This plan was never implemented, but Geddes designed the university library, today the Faculty of Law building. The master plan for the campus was taken over by German Jewish architect Erich Mendelsohn in 1935. Mendelsohn greatly influenced the local Jerusalem International Style (Bauhaus).

Notice the living sculpture outside of the Sinatra building that commemorates the nine students killed by a bomb left in the university cafeteria in July 2002, a tree growing out of the ground at an angle, by Israeli sculptor, Ran Morin. The Tilted Tree signifies humankind’s ability to withstand even the most disruptive shocks and to continue to grow upwards.

Prof. Sukenik and his colleagues, including Prof. Nahman Avigad, had planned to open a museum on Mount Scopus in 1948 to display items related to the history of the Jewish people in ancient times. Among the artifacts are ceiling tiles from the ancient synagogue* discovered in 1932 in the city of Dura Europos, located in the desert above the banks of the Euphrates in Syria. Sukenik had been invited by the Yale University team to visit the site (in Syria) and join in the publication of the findings. He was given 3 ceiling tiles that he brought back to Israel. The outbreak of the War of Independence with the result that Scopus was isolated within Jordanian-occupied territory made the opening of the museum impossible.

  

Sixty-three years later, these painted clay tiles and other artifacts have been put on display, including some half dozen ossuaries, mosaics, clay vessels, etc. from excavations in Israel by members of the Archaeology department. The modest museum is open to the public.

Walk through the botanical gardens organized by Alexander Eig, head of the Botany Department, based on the flora of the Land of Israel planted in 1931 to some caves with Second Temple period tombs. It was here that they found some half dozen ossuaries (the ones displayed on site are replicas, the originals are in the museum) including one with a 4 line inscription in Greek and Hebrew:

[In this ossuary are] the bones of [the family of] Nicanor of Alexandria who made the doors
Nicanor  Alexa

Nicanor is mention in the Babylonian Talmud in Yoma 38a, the donor of the two bronze doors for the Temple. The original ossuary is at the British museum in London.

In 1940s, Pinsker and Ussishkin, early leaders of the Zionist movement, were buried in one of the caves.

Went back to the Jerusalem War Cemetery on Mount Scopus and found the graves of Jewish soldiers who served in the British army during WWI and fought and died here. In addition, I noticed two gravestones of Turkish soldiers.

  

Visited the memorial at Givat HaTachmoshet to see the model of Jerusalem and how the city was divided in the ceasefire agreement of Nov 30, 1948 signed by Dayan (Israel) and el-Tell (Jordan). Article VIII of the 1949 Armistice Agreements signed by Israel and Jordan in April 1949 called for a resumption of “the normal functioning of the cultural and humanitarian institutions on Mount Scopus and free access thereto; free access to the Holy Places and cultural institutions and use of the cemetery on the Mount of Olives; resumption of operation of the Latrun pumping station; provision of electricity for the Old City; and resumption of operation of the railroad to Jerusalem.” Jordan did not abide to the agreement. There is a movie with original army footage that relates the events that divided the city in 1948 and shows how Israel recaptured the area from Jordan in 1967 and reunited the city.


http://art-history.concordia.ca/cujah/issue03/3-the-significance-of-the-dura-europos-synagogue.htm

Miriam… Caiaphas Ossuary

The Israel Exploration Journal (Vol. 61) recently published an article by Zissu and Goren which summarizes the importance of and confirms the genuineness of a decorated ossuary bearing an engraved inscription. The Israel Antiquities Authority Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery acquired the ossuary three years ago from antiquity robbers who had plundered a Jewish tomb from the Second Temple period. Although the provenance of the ossuary is unknown investigations have led the IAA to determine that the ossuary came from a burial cave in the area of the Elah Valley.

The front of the ossuary that was found is decorated with a stylized floral motif above which is a long Aramaic inscription engraved in Jewish script:

מרים ברת ישוע בר קיפא כהן דמעזיה דבית עמרי

‘Miriam Daughter of Yeshua Son of Caiaphas, Priest[s] of Ma’aziah from Beth ’Imri’
or, an alternative reading
Miriam, Daughter of Yeshua Bar Qayafa, Priest of (the course of) Ma’aziah of the House of ‘Omri

In the conclusion of their study Zissu and Goren write, “the prime importance of the inscription lies in the reference to the ancestry of the deceased – Miriam daughter of Yeshua – of the Caiaphas family, indicating the connection to the family of the Ma’aziah course of priests of Beth ’Imri”. Caiaphas is the name of Yeshua’s father, and Miriam‘s grandfather.

Ma’aziah is the last of the twenty four priestly courses (service shifts) that served in the Temple in Jerusalem (the list of courses was formulated during King David’s reign and appears in I Chronicles 24:18). This is the first reference to the Maʽaziah course in an epigraphic find from the Second Temple period. For the first time we learn from an inscription that the Caiaphas family was related to the Ma’aziah course.

The ending “from Beth ’Imri” can be interpreted two ways:

  1. The first possibility is that Beth ’Imri is the name of a priestly family – the sons of ’Immer (Ezra 2: 36-37; Nehemiah 7:39-42) whose descendents include members of the Maʽaziah course.
  2. The second possibility is that Beth ’Imri is the place of origin of the deceased or of her entire family. The name of the ancient settlement was probably preserved in the name Beit ’Ummar, a village in the northern Hebron Hills. In that village and in nearby Khirbet Kufin, remains of a Jewish settlement were identified from the Second Temple period and the time of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. It is possible that the village of Kufin preserves the name of the Caiaphas family.

Since the ossuary in question was not found in a controlled archaeological excavation and because of the importance of its inscription, it was subjected to microscopic examinations using an environmental scanning electron microscope/energy dispersive spectrometer (ESEM/EDS), the purpose of which was to evaluate its authenticity. The patina covering the sides was checked, with emphasis on the patina covering the inscription. The examinations determined that the inscription is genuine and ancient.

Archaeological Artifacts with Names

Of the myriad names of people that are familiar from the Bible and I’ll expand it to include the New Testament, Josephus and the Talmud, we have very little confirmation from archaeological evidence, inscriptions, papyrus or parchment, that these figures actually existed. I am excluding, for the moment, the names of rulers who appear on coins minted during their reign or names on bullae or seals.

Here are some of the names that have been found on archaeological artifacts:

  • The name Nicanor, from Alexandria who brought 2 large bronze gates to the Herodian Temple in Jerusalem, recounted in the Talmud Yoma 38a, was found on an ossuary in a burial cave on Mt. Scopus.
  • The name of the priestly family of Hezir, mentioned in the Bible (Nehemiah 10:20; 1 Chronicles 24:15), was found in an epitaph in the family mausoleum in the Kidron Valley.

  • The name of the priestly family Qatros, mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud, was inscribed on a stone weight, found in the basement of the Burnt House, a private dwelling on the Western Hill in Jerusalem.
  • The name of the priestly family Caiaphas, mentioned in the New Testament, Josephus and the Talmud was found on two ossuaries found in Jerusalem.
  • The name Yehohanah, a granddaughter of the high priest Theophilus nominated high priest in 37CE the year Herod became king mentioned in Josephus was found inscribed on an ossuary.
  • The name “tzaddan malka” and “tzadda malkata,” the Aramaic equivalent of the Greek “Queen Helena”,  spoken of in Josephus and the Tosefta for her giving of charity to the poor of Jerusalem during a period of famine (Peah 4:1) was found inscribed on a sarcophagus from the Tomb of the Kings in Jerusalem.
  • The name Simon bar Kosiba or Bar Kokhba, the leader of the Second Jewish Revolt (132–135CE) against the Roman was found on letters in caves at Wadi Murabba’at and Nahal Hever and 4 lead weights. You can see images of these weights at this site: http://www.archaeological-center.com/en/monographs/
  • The name David was found in the excavations at Dan when a piece of basalt, part of a victory stele describing how the Aramaean King Hazael was victorious over the House of David was found in the wall by the outer outer gate.
  • The name Pontius Pilate was found on a stone inscription, part of a larger dedication to Tiberius Caesar in Caesarea.
  • The name James (brother of Jesus) was found on an ossuary with the Aramaic inscription Ya’akov bar-Yosef akhui diYeshua, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” as recorded in the New Testament and Josephus; the authenticity of the inscription has been contested and is the subject of ongoing scholarly debate.

Caiaphas Family Tomb and Ossuary

Tomb layout from IAA via Biblical Archaeology Review article

In the winter of 1990 while doing some work in the Peace Forest just below the Haas promenade (in Hebrew known as the tayelet) workers discovered a burial cave made up of 4 recesses (called loculi), rectangular spaces about 6 feet deep and 1.5 feet wide, cut in the limestone bedrock. The promenade, a dream of Teddy Kollek and designed by the Israeli landscape architect, Shlomo Aronson, is built on the ridge with an impressive view of the Old City walls and ancient city of David; I often take people there to begin a tour.

Since many tombs have been found in the Kidron and Ben Hinnom valleys around the Old City it was not a surprise to find this burial cave. Inside were found 12 ossuaries, 6 scattered about indicating that the cave had been robbed in antiquity but 6 in their original places.  Zvi Greenhut, the IAA archaeologist called to the site, identified it as a Jewish burial cave from the Second Temple period. At this time, burial for those who could afford a family tomb, the body was laid out in a recess carved in the wall of the cave and closed off. A year later, after the flesh had decomposed, the family returned, opened the loculus and gathered up the bones and deposited them in a cavern with earlier bones. That’s the explanation of the expression in the Bible “to be gathered up with his forefathers” and why it is a custom to revisit the grave after a year. Later it became customary to put the bones in a special limestone box and to write the name of the deceased on the outside – this coincided with the rise in belief of a physical resurrection at the End of Days.

Of the five ossuaries with inscriptions we find the names of two women: Miryam berat Shimon and Shlom… the full version would be Shlomzion.

Caiaphas ossuaryFrom the name written on two of the ossuaries the cave seems to be the family tomb of Qafa, in Greek Caiaphas, a name known to us from the New Testament and writings of Josephus, one of whom was the high priest who presided at the trial of Jesus. One of these ossuaries is decorated beautifully in a rare and intricate pattern of two circles, each made up of six whorl rosettes, bordered by a pattern of palm branches. Inside were found bones from six different people, two infants, a child between 2 and 5, a young boy between 13 and 18, an adult woman and a male of about 60.

On the undecorated end is inscribed “Joseph bar Caiaphas” not necessarily “the son of” – here Caiaphas is a nickname which became a sort of family name. A fascinating statistic from the Second Temple period based on personal names mentioned in literary sources and inscriptions is that 28% of men had one of 4 names (Joseph and Shimon being the two most popular), 9 names account for 44% of men (so a family nickname would help identify people); for women it was even more extreme, 50% of women had 2 names, Miryam, which later became Mary and Shlomzion the equivalent of Salome in Greek.

A coin found in one of the ossuaries was minted by Herod Agrippa (37–44 C.E.). This would help us date the two Caiaphas ossuaries perhaps as early as the beginning of the century. The evidence suggests that we may have recovered the burial box (ossuary) and even the bones of the high priest Caiaphas who handed Jesus over to the Romans.