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Ancient Jewish Burial Practices: Façade and Ornamentation

In ancient Israel, the tomb was a central component of the primary burial rituals practiced during the first century. These tombs symbolized the final resting place of the individual and were generally carved out of caves tombs. The tombs that were used during Jewish burial practices during this time were indicative of the socio-economic status of the deceased, as supported by the excavations of hundreds of tombs in and around the city of Jerusalem. The wealthier the individual, the more opulent the tomb in which he was buried was.

The tombs used by the wealthy in first century Jerusalem were generally very ornate. These tombs were decorated with lavish facades and were decorated with columns topped with gables that featured intricate flower motifs. For example, the tomb attributed to Avshalom, David’s rebellious son, is a particularly extravagant tomb. Located in the Kidron alley, situated northeast of the Jerusalem’s Old City, it is decorated with intricate vine leaves featuring bundles of grapes, which are thought to be indicative of fecundity and wealth.

In addition, similarly ornate tombs have also been discovered in the Hinnom Valley. Located on the southern and western sides of the Old City, two particularly well-preserved, opulent tombs from the period of Herod were found inside the St. Onuphrius monastery found on the southern slope. These tombs feature classical façades with distinct geometrical designs that have been cut into walls of the tomb.

Furthermore, tombs were also decorated using different objects, which were used during daily life and which were placed inside of the tombs. Such objects of ornamentation include pottery vessels and oil lamps. Storage jars were placed at the tomb’s entrance, while cooking pots were placed at the head of the coffin. The tombs of women and children were usually decorated with pottery lamps, pear-shaped bottles, wooden vessels and juglets. Coins were also sometimes placed inside of first-century toms. The inclusion of such objects is indicative of the Jewish belief in the afterlife.

Similarly, ossuaries, which were made from limestone, also contained ornamentation in the form of inscriptions. Generally, the individual’s family name was inscribed on the side of the ossuary. The ossuaries of wealthier individuals were also decorated with geometric designs that had symbolic religious value. In some cases, the individual’s status and his achievements were additionally carved into the side of the ossuary.


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