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Not A Typical Tomb

The Chevron and Its Significance with Regard to First Century Tombs

East Talpiot, Jerusalem, March 28, 1980. In what would soon be called Dov Gruner Street, in a brand new subdivision called Armon Hanatziv, a bulldozer in the service of the ongoing, rapid construction in the area accidentally unearthed a tomb.

Construction shut down immediately, as the law dictated. The foreman, an Orthodox Jew named Efraim Schohat, called up the Department of Antiquities (later, the Israel Antiquities Authority) and reported the discovery.

Two days later, when archaeologists Josef Gat, Amos Kloner and Shimon Gibson arrived at the site, the first thing they noted was a strange symbol over the door to the tomb, on the south face of the antechamber. They were at a complete loss. They had never seen another like it: a decorative V- or Y-shaped gable or chevron over a prominent circle. It measured more than a meter wide, wider, in fact, than the passage to the tomb beneath it.

At first, Shimon Gibson thought the symbol might have been an unfinished wreath or rosette, a typical image found carved in and around tombs of the Second Temple period, a symbol of royalty. It may have been left unfinished, he thought, as many tombs were, with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. All building activity was left frozen in mid-stride when the Temple fell and the Jews were driven from the city.

But upon further inspection, Gibson concluded that the symbol appeared as it was intended to appear. It was a quite beautifully rendered stone relief sculpture. Someone had worked very carefully, almost lovingly, to achieve the smooth, three-dimensional effect. All three archaeologists knew that the elaborateness of the faÁade, especially in a tomb with no other decorative features, was extremely rare.

Puzzlingly, bones had been placed in the antechamber directly underneath the chevron symbol, possibly deliberately. This too was decidedly not typical. In ancient Jerusalem, the dead were placed inside tombs; in tombs, the dead were placed inside ossuaries. If anything was left behind, it was a lamp or a bottle of perfumeónot skulls. What were human bones doing under the symbol? Whose bones were they?

The archaeologists didnít know much about the bones. They didnít know much about the symbol. But they did know a few things. They knew the tomb was completed some time between about 30 AD, when the practice of secondary burial or ossuary use began, and 70 AD. They knew it belonged to an elite family, one wealthy enough to afford such a tomb, and that it was likely a literate family. And they knew that, of the hundreds of first-century tombs unearthed in Jerusalem, IAA 80/500-509 was the only one bearing the symbol of the chevron over the circle.

They were prepared for more questions. But as the ossuaries began to emerge, the archaeologists were not prepared for the answers they were getting. It would be more than a quarter century before anyone was ready to let the evidence speak for itself.

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