Tag Archives: Tomb

Roman Mausoleum

Because our son Amitai is training new recruits for the Border Police I attended the swearing-in ceremony at Tel Hadid. Hadid is mentioned in Nehemiah 7 in the list of cities to which Jews returned from the Babylonian exile. In excavations at Tel Hadid archaeologists found a typical four room house,  numerous potsherds from the Iron Age (9th-8th centuries BCE) and two complete tablets, written in cuneiform, Assyrian legal documents one recording the sale of land dating from 698BCE and the other a promissory note from 664BCE. The tablets are evidence that with the conquest of Judea by Sargon II foreigners from Babylonia were settled at Hadid.

Continuing north past Tel Hadid along highway 444 (which follows the route of the Via Maris) is a small stone building, a Roman mausoleum, amazingly intact and graced with a magnificent temple-like façade in classical style, two columns with Corinthian capitals framing a single entrance (closed originally with a stone door, note the recesses on the doorposts for a mezuza).

According to the style of the building and the remnants of two sarcophagi (stone coffins) in the floor of the main chamber, archaeologists conclude that it was built in the beginning of the 4th century CE for a wealthy landowner and his wife, although their identities remain a mystery.

A second chamber to the left is a columbarium with about 60 “pigeonholes” where doves were raised for sacrifice to Aphrodite. Of interest is a cantilevered stone staircase leading up to the opening at ceiling level.

Later the Muslims added a michrab, a niche in the southern wall signifying the direction of Mecca, and dedicated the site to Nebi Yihya, associated by local tradition with John the Baptist. In this way, the building was preserved through the ages.


Model of Herod’s Tomb

I was at Herodium today and took the opportunity to photograph the new smaller than life-size model of Herod’s tomb which has been installed by the path that leads to the palace-fortress. The model was built from drawings by Prof. Ehud Netzer based on the base of the mausoleum uncovered and Netzer’s expertise as both an architect and archaeologist on the Herodian period. Netzer estimates the nefesh as 25 meters high, with a cube-shaped lower level with two rows of decorations below the roof line, a row of egg and dart pattern and below it a row of medallions and vertical bars. On top of this cube sits a cylindrical second level, a tholos with columns and a conical roof. The model shows Nabatean funerary urns in four places along the roof line and the peak of the cone. We found two pieces of stone carved in the egg and dart pattern a few years ago when I volunteered at the dig.

There is also a short video, currently only in Hebrew, that attempts to illustrate the account by Josephus of Herod’s death.

Archelaus omitted nothing of magnificence therein, but brought out all the royal ornaments to augment the pomp of the deceased. There was a bier all of gold, embroidered with precious stones, and a purple bed of various contexture, with the dead body upon it, covered with purple; and a diadem was put upon his head, and a crown of gold above it, and a secptre in his right hand; and near to the bier were Herod’s sons, and a multitude of his kindred; next to which came his guards, and the regiment of Thracians, the Germans. also and Gauls, all accounted as if they were going to war; but the rest of the army went foremost, armed, and following their captains and officers in a regular manner; after whom five hundred of his domestic servants and freed-men followed, with sweet spices in their hands: and the body was carried two hundred furlongs, to Herodium, where he had given order to be buried.

There were a half dozen people working at the tomb site. I noticed the remains of some additional structures that have been uncovered. Unfortunately, access to the tomb area is still closed.

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.

Ketef Hinnom Silver Amulet

I wrote this post about First Temple Period tombs found in Jerusalem in 2011 and over the years the post got 1 Like, a few hundred views a year which is an average of less than 1 view a day, until this year! Since 2021 the post has 1672 views or 30 views on average per day and I can’t figure out why. If you’re reading this post could you please leave a comment about how you found it and why it is of interest. Thanks so much.

In 1979 Prof. Gabriel Barkay decided to do some archaeological research outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City and chose a ridge above the Hinnom valley by the Scottish Church of St. Andrew.

He called the area Ketef Hinnom (ketef means shoulder in Hebrew) and did a survey that uncovered the remains of a Byzantine church with mosaic floor and some tombs hewn in the rock whose roofs had collapsed. With the help of 12-13 year olds from a youth group from Tel Aviv run by the Society for the Protection of Nature he began excavating. They found one bead – it was clear that the tombs had been looted in antiquity.

A boy by the name of Nathan was assigned to clean a nook underneath one of the burial benches. By chance he also had a hammer and after cleaning, he got bored and started banging on the floor of the nook. To his surprise the stone bottom broke revealing an entryway to another room full of treasure. The burial chamber with its objects has been faithfully recreated at the Israel Museum.

As Prof. Barkay explained:

“In [that] one chamber more than a thousand objects were found.  They included 125 objects of silver, 40 iron arrowheads, gold, ivory, glass, [ceramics, oil lamps,] bone and 150 semi-precious stones.  There was 60 centimeters (two feet) of accumulation filled with objects and skeletal remains…

Judy Hadley, a girl from Toledo Ohio, now a professor of Bible at Villanova University in Philadelphia, showed me a purplish-colored object looking like a cigarette butt.  It took us three years to unroll it properly.  It was 2.5 cm wide, about 1 inch.  When unrolled, it was 10 cm in length.  It was made of pure silver, 99% silver. Very delicately scratched on the silver were ancient Hebrew characters.  I saw it at the Israel Museum lab and immediately recognized the four letters of the Divine Name, YHVH.”

Courtesy of the Israel Museum

All the dirt removed from the tombs was stored in large plastic boxes donated by Tnuva [Israel’s largest dairy and today a billion dollar food conglomerate] and sifted under lab conditions. In the sifting, a second, smaller silver object, 4 cm in length, was also found. Both objects have the Priestly Blessings from Numbers 6:24-26 engraved on the silver in proto-Hebrew script.

The Lord bless you and protect you.
The Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.
The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and grant you peace.

Because of the pottery and the script, the objects are dated to the 7th century BCE (while the First Temple was still standing), to the time of the prophet Jeremiah. These are the oldest examples that we have found of a Biblical text on an archaeological artifact, about 400 years older than the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The discovery of the silver amulets received very wide public interest.  In the 1990s Dr. Bruce Zuckerman from the University of Southern California, an expert who specializes in photographing ancient texts (various Dead Sea Scrolls and the Leningrad Codex) arranged to photograph the amulets using the latest photographic and computer imaging techniques.  This made it possible to zoom in on every letter and even superimpose complete letters on broken letters, reconstructing broken letters in the scribe’s own peculiar style to better decipher those that were unclear. The result was that they were able to identify another biblical verse on the larger scroll, from Deuteronomy 7:9.

Know, therefore, that only the Lord your God is God, the steadfast God, who keeps His covenant faithfully to the thousandth generation of those who love Him and keep His commandments.

Read the Life and Land blog for a first-hand report from Gordon Franz who as a 25-year old was at Ketef Hinnom working with Prof. Gaby Barkai. The two amulets are on display in the Archaeology wing of the Israel Museum. I can take you to Ketef Hinnom to see the First Temple period tombs where the amulets were found.

Jewish Hirbet Midras

About 45km south of Jerusalem in the Ella valley, where David fought Goliath, are the ruins of an ancient agricultural settlement beginning in Iron age II, Hirbet Midras. With the recent discovery of a Byzantine church thought to be the burial place of the prophet Zechariah* people may lose sight of the fact that the site also contained a large, important Jewish settlement that dates from the Second Temple period (3rd century BCE) until its destruction during the Bar Kokhba uprising.

The site is part of a JNF park and nature reserve covering about 5000 dunam with typical Mediterranean woodlands, Kermes oak, Atlantic pistachio, terebinth and buckthorn. When I visited there were pink cyclamen (rakafot רקפות), red anemones (kalaniot כלניות) and Common Asphodel in bloom. With the recent rains, hyssop (zatar) had come up.

There were also many clumps of mandrakes (dudaim) in bloom, the fruit, which is reported in the Bible to be an aphrodisiac, will be ready late summer, at the time of the wheat harvest.

וַיֵּלֶךְ רְאוּבֵן בִּימֵי קְצִיר-חִטִּים, וַיִּמְצָא דוּדָאִים בַּשָּׂדֶה, וַיָּבֵא אֹתָם, אֶל-לֵאָה אִמּוֹ; וַתֹּאמֶר רָחֵל, אֶל-לֵאָה, תְּנִי-נָא לִי, מִדּוּדָאֵי בְּנֵךְ

Reuven went out and found mandrakes in the field and brought them to his mother, Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, “Give me, I pray thee, of your son’s mandrakes”.  Genesis 30:14

Among the remains at the site are various buildings, agricultural installations and an extensive complex of caves and tunnels, including a columbarium and tombs.

Cut out of the soft limestone is a bell cave with square and triangular niches carved in the walls that was used as a columbarium (dovecote). The pigeons were raised for food and the dung used as fertilizer. Other bell caves were used for storage and hiding during the Bar Kokhba revolt – a collection of chambers were quarried and connected to each other by tunnels. For those who like spelunking you can walk and crawl (about 20 minutes and you’ll need a flashlight and a map) from the bell cave through a circular maze of tunnels through some dozen chambers that takes you back to where you started.

At the top of the hill with a great view of the coastal plain is a stepped, pyramid-shaped structure of dressed stone, the only one of its kind in Israel. The base is about 10 meters and the present height is 3.5 meters but 3 rows of stones are missing bringing the original height to 5 meters. This structure is a nefesh or monument marking a Jewish burial cave.

There is a wall of dressed stones up the hill near the stepped pyramid and nearby part of a niche which leads scholars to identify the building as a 4th century synagogue.

On the way back down you will pass a system of subterranean burial chambers cut in the limestone. The original opening of the cave was from a square patio, the tomb opening was sealed by a large stone disc that rolled on a track in the rock.

Nearby on the western side of highway 38 is a site with Roman milestones from the third century CE, from the days of Marcus Aurelius, with inscriptions of one of the caesars names (Septimius Severus) and his achievements.

*According to Jewish and some Christian traditions the burial place of Zechariah, along with Hagai and Malachi, the last three Hebrew prophets who are believed to have lived during the 5th-6th centuries BCE is in a large catacomb on the Mount of Olives (31.783333°N 35.250833°E). Archaeological research shows that the complex dates from the 1st century BCE, when this style of tombs came into use for Jewish burial. Some Greek inscriptions discovered at the site suggest the cave was re-used to bury Christians during the 4th and 5th centuries CE.

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.