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Ossuaries

It’s rather bizarre that one of the major sources of information about the life of ancient peoples comes to us through the remains of the dead. It goes without saying that archaeologists spend a lot of time puzzling over the meaning of various burial practices. Do they suggest a fear of the deceased? Do they imply a highly advanced culture or a barbaric one? Do they indicate ancestor worship and by extension reverence for elders? And how did these burial practices related to the Jesus tomb?

Archaeologists do not agree on the meaning of ossuary use, a form of burial, practiced as far back as the Zoroastrians. Some say it suggests a belief in the afterlife. Others, that it indicates over-population and a lack of land for cemetery purposes.

An ossuary can take many forms: a deep well, a building, such as a charnel house, a small stone chest, or any other place where bones of the dead are placed after the flesh has been removed. It can hold the remains of one, several, or many individuals.

For about a hundred years, from 30 BCE to 70 CE, people in the Jerusalem area practiced a specific form of “secondary burial” involving small limestone ossuaries. When someone died first the family members wrapped the body in a shroud and placed it in a tomb carved out of the rock. After a year or so, they returned, gathered the bones, and placed them in the bone box. They placed this ossuary in a niche within the tomb.

These ossuaries were measured precisely to accommodate the longest bone in the body, the femur, and they were fitted with a stone lid, sometimes flat, sometimes rounded.

Ossuaries could be completely unadorned or boast sensational carvings. Decorations were usually limited to one side of the box only, and were most often of rosettes, vines, lilies, and geometric patterns. Archaeologists have long attempted to decode such signs, symbols, and designs, but are often playing a guessing game. Rosettes, they know, were symbols of royalty, as a wreath or laurel like the one worn by the Caesars.

Thousands of ossuaries have been found throughout Jerusalem, from hundreds of tombs. About 20% of these ossuaries bear inscriptions: the name of the deceased, perhaps his function in society, perhaps his father’s name--or his brother’s. These inscriptions were usually done by family members, not professional engravers and are at times barely legible.

Intriguingly, some ossuaries have actually been linked to figures in the Gospels. For example, the ossuary of the High Priest Caiaphas is on exhibit at the Israel Museum and is the most highly decorated of any found in Israel. The ossuary of Simon of Cyrene, who carried the cross of Jesus, has also been found. Not to mention the James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus ossuary…

Although ossuary use ended in Jerusalem with the destruction of the city by the Romans in 70 CE, it seems to have migrated at that time to the area of the Galilee and eventually became a practice favored by the Catholic Church.


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