It seldom rains in the Judean wilderness; this climatic condition accounts for the preservation of some rare Jewish coffins recently discovered in the hills overlooking Jericho. These coffins are made of wood, are painted, and date to the late Hasmonean period (first century B.C.) continuing into Herod’s reign until 6 A.D. when his son, Archelaus was deposed.1 They are among the few Jewish wooden coffins ever discovered, and they provide important new insights into burial customs of the time.2
Hundreds of tombs from the Herodian and Roman periods (middle of first century B.C.—first century A.D.) are known throughout Palestine, especially in the Jerusalem area. But the only type of funerary container previously uncovered was the ossuary or bone box. These ossuaries are small limestone boxes approximately 20 inches long, 10 inches wide and 12 inches high. Usually they have a flat, gabled, or rounded lid. All these ossuaries were used for secondary burials; approximately a year after the original burial, when the body had decomposed, the bones of the deceased were collected and placed in the ossuary.
The cemetery containing the rare wooden coffins came to light as a result of illegal Bedouin digging. A number of limestone ossuaries came onto the antiquities market and this naturally aroused the suspicions of the authorities. Subsequent investigation led to the hills above Jericho as the source of the illegally dug ossuaries. An emergency salvage excavation was obviously required, and I was asked by the Department of Antiquities to lead it.
During the excavation, we surveyed the area, and discovered that we were in the midst of a huge cemetery that served Hasmonean and Herodian Jericho, and probably the surrounding villages as well. By the end of our excavation, we had surveyed approximately 120 tomb-caves, spread over an area seven miles long and involving seven Jericho hills.
This enormous cemetery was located outside the town limits of that time. Jewish law, then as now, required burial outside the town limits. In the Mishna (Baba Bathra 2, 9) it states- “Carcasses, graves and tanneries may not remain within a space of fifty cubits from the town … R. Akiba says- It may be set up on any side save the west but it may not be within a distance of 50 cubits.”
Each of the tombs was hewn from rock-cut into the hillside forming a man-made cave or chamber. The floor of the chamber was square, about eight feet on a side. Frequently, a pit about five feet square was dug into the floor of the room, thus forming benches along the side of the tomb. The height of the caves, from the benches to the ceiling, was only three to four feet. The pits dug in the center of the chambers increased their height at that point to about six feet, and were probably dug to permit a person to stand upright inside the tomb.
Burial recesses, or loculi as they are technically called (kochim in Hebrew), were hewn in the walls above the benches on three sides of the tomb-chamber.3 Each loculus was semi-circular in shape and longer than the height of a man—six feet—long enough in fact to place in it a body, a coffin, or an ossuary.
The entrances to the tomb chambers were square and were originally closed by a blocking stone which was sealed firmly in its place with mortar and small stones. Usually each of the loculi or burial recesses within the chamber was also sealed in one of three ways- 1) a blocking stone, 2) bricks, or 3) small stones held together by mortar or mud. The plan of these tombs was similar to hundreds of tombs of the period, which are already well-known to archaeologists, so we were not all surprised by this aspect of our survey.
What did surprise us was the presence of the wooden coffins. Two distinctly different burial customs were revealed during the course of excavation—primary burial in wooden coffins, and secondary burial in limestone ossuaries; the two customs were followed at different times. The earlier burial custom, in coffins, can be dated by the finds and especially by the coins, to the late Hasmonean period and continued until the end of the Herodian Dynasty in 6 A.D. The later type of burial, secondary burial in ossuaries, dates from the beginning of Roman rule of the Province of Judea (6 A.D.) until the fall of Jericho during the Jewish Revolt against the Romans in 68 A.D.4 Thus, the cemetery was in use during a period of about 150 years spanning the late Hasmonean and Herodian periods, and ending with the destruction of Jericho.
The wooden coffins were found in the loculi as well as on the benches. Apparently, when the loculi filled up, the benches were used as burial shelves. The coffin lids were generally gabled, although some were flat. The coffin itself consisted of a rectangular chest made of planks joined by mortising. No metal whatever was used in the coffins (except for decoration). Even the hinges that held the lid to the coffin were made of wood and were attached with wooden pegs. The wood was locally grown cypress, Christ-thorn (jujube), and sycamore.
Single coffins sometimes contained two and even three bodies. Frequently, a woman and child were buried together. Whether this was because they died at the same time, or whether the second body was added later, we have no way of knowing. The coffins were decorated with red and black paint. The geometric designs were usually outlined in black, with red paint used as a filling color.
The Jericho ossuaries are decorated in a manner similar to the hundreds of ossuaries found around Jerusalem. The most common motif is two or three rosettes within a frame. Red paint was often added to the decoration. But of the hundreds of ossuaries from Jerusalem, and now from Jericho, not a single one was decorated with an image of a human or animal. Inscriptions—both in Hebrew and Greek—with the name of the deceased were sometimes incised on an ossuary. In one tomb from Jericho, two inscribed ossuaries and an inscribed bowl were found together in one loculus. One ossuary has an inscription in Jewish script which gives not only the deceased’s name (Pelatya) but also the fact that he came “from Jerusalem.”5 The second ossuary has a Greek inscription giving the name (Simon) and his age (41 years). Together with the two ossuaries we found a rare inscribed funerary bowl, the only one ever found. The bowl contains two inscriptions in Jewish script. The one on the inside of the bowl reads- Ishmael son of Shimon son of Plata (from) Jerusalem and the inscription on the outside in two lines, reads- on the first line, Ishmael [grand] son of Plata; and on the second line, Shimon from Jerusalem. The two inscriptions trace the genealogy of a three generation family “from Jerusalem.” Two of the three generations (Pelatya, the grandfather, and Shimon, the father) were buried in the two ossuaries placed one on top of the other in this Jericho tomb. It seems that Ishmael, the third generation, placed this bowl with the two ossuaries in order to commemorate his father and grandfather.6
Outside the tomb entrances, we often found a bag-shaped storage jar. Cooking pots were often placed at the head of the coffins on the benches and in front of the sealed loculi. Pottery lamps, piriform (pear-shaped) bottles, juglets, and wooden vessels were found inside the coffins of women and children.7 In one case, a small glass unguentarium was placed inside a child’s coffin. The handle of the unguentarium had been broken off before it was placed there; many of the grave goods were defective in some way or other. While small personal items were found in the coffins, no gifts were found in the ossuaries. Coins were also placed in the tombs. Two coins were found with coffin burials, one dating to the reign of the Hasmonean king, John Hyrcanus II (63–40 B.C.) and a second from the time of Archelaus (4 B.C.–6 A.D.). Two additional coins of Herod Agrippa I (4144 A.D.) were found in a skull. The coins originally must have been placed on the eyes of the deceased (probably as payment to Charon, the guardian of the River Styx where, according to Greek mythology, the dead must cross in order to arrive at their ultimate destination.8)
Jews placed great importance on proper burial. Those who died in battle and even criminals were required to be given a burial according to religious law. We know that objects connected with the dead were considered unpure. In the present state of our knowledge, however, we find it difficult to go further. We have no satisfactory explanation for the meaning of these grave goods, or why so many of the pieces are defective.
Equally as puzzling is the change from primary burial in coffins of the earlier period to secondary burial in ossuaries during the later period. The plan of the tombs remained the same in both periods, but the manner of burial changed.
It is also worth noting that secondary burial in ossuaries was practiced only by Jews during this period. No similar practices of secondary burial of bones have been found among contemporaneous cultures.
This custom of secondary burial in ossuaries was common among Jews in Judea until the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. It continued to be practiced, but on a smaller scale, at least until the first half of the second century A.D.9
Several theories have been proposed to explain the sudden change by Jews to secondary burial in ossuaries.10 These include- (1) To conserve space- The Jericho evidence easily refutes this proposal when one makes a simple comparison of the number of burials in coffin tombs to the number buried in ossuary tombs. Discoveries showed that coffins generally contained more individuals than ossuaries. (2) To facilitate resurrection of the complete body-11 Importance is placed on the gathering of all the deceased’s bones so that the body will be resurrected in its entirety. However, if the stress is placed on keeping the deceased’s bones together, this could be accomplished more effectively by primary burial in coffins. In the act of gathering the bones for secondary burial, a few bones could easily be lost or mixed with others. (3) To signify the expiation of sins through the decay of the flesh- This concept is connected with the belief that the sins of an individual are in the flesh, and expiation of sins can be achieved through the decay of the flesh after death. When only the bones remain, the body is then considered pure and the bones are ready for placement in ossuaries.12
Of all the above-discussed theories, the last suggestion seems to me to be the most acceptable explanation for this custom. It is important to consider the political and social position of the Jews in Judea at this time. In the year 6 A.D. the Jews lost their independence, their state was thereafter the Province of Judea and was ruled by Roman procurators. This period is characterized by political and religious unrest. Because of their misfortunes, the Jews may have seen themselves as sinners and therefore adopted the custom of secondary burial of the bones (after the decay of the flesh) as a way to expiate their sins.
Perhaps some future excavation will give us a more definitive answer. Until then, we must settle for less than complete knowledge.
1. The Hasmonean period began with the successful revolt of the Maccabees; Jews even today celebrate this event at the festival of Chanukah. The Hasmonean period ended when Herod the Great assumed the crown of the Jewish state in 37 B.C. He ruled until 4 B.C. when his son Archelaus succeeded him as the ethnarch of Judea, Samaria and Idumea until his removal in 6 A.D.
2. Several wooden coffins were also found in a Judean desert cave. See Nachman Avigad, “Expedition A—The burial caves in Nahal David” Israel Exploration Journal 12 (1962) pp. 181–83.
3. We also found some single-loculus tombs which had been cut into the hillside.
4. In two tombs we found bones from several bodies, in piles without a container, collected in the loculi and on the benches. This could represent a third type of burial, intermediate in time between the coffin burials and the ossuaries, or contemporary with the ossuary burials.
5. “Jewish” is used, according to the terminology of Frank Moore Cross, to describe the script of the Second Temple Period. This script was employed at that time to write both Hebrew and Aramaic.
6. See Rachel Hachlili, “A Jerusalem Family in Jericho,” BASOR 230, (1978) pp. 45–56.
7. See Semahot VIII, 7, and S. Lieberman, “Some Aspects of Afterlife in Rabbinical Literature,” American Academy for Jewish Research 1965, I, pp. 495–532. On p. 509, “Since there is no doubt that it was permitted to place the personal belongings of the deceased beside his body, not because he is in need of them, but because the sin arouses the grief of the onlookers.”
8. See L. Y. Rahmani, “Jewish Rock-Cut Tombs in Jerusalem”, Atiqot III (1961), p. 119 and note 6. Here he traces the practice of placing coins in tombs to a Greco-Roman belief, whereby a coin was placed in the mouth of the deceased in order to pay Charon for conveying his shade across the Styx. However, Jews looked upon the custom of placing coins in tombs as idolatrous.
9. L. Y. Rahmani, “Ossuaries and Bone-Gathering in the Late Second Temple Period,” Qadmoniot 44 (1978), pp. 111–112. Evidence has been found of Jewish secondary burial well into Talmudic times in the fourth century A.D. See Eric and Carol Meyers, “Digging the Talmud in Ancient Meiron,” BAR 04-02.
10. For a summary of these various views see L. Y. Rahmani, “Jewish Rock-cut tombs in Jerusalem,” ‘Atiqot III, 1961, pp. 117–118 and notes 6–7; and Eric Meyers, Jewish Ossuaries- Reburial and Rebirth, Rome 1971, pp. 80–89.
11. L. Y. Rahmani, “Jewish Rock-cut Tombs in Jerusalem”, ‘Atiqot III, 1961, p. 117, n. 6.
12. Ibid., pp. 117–18, n. 7.