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Ancient Burial Shroud (2006)

In November 1998 two archaeologists working for the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), Dr. Shimon Gibson and Dr. Boaz Zissu, reported finding textile fragments of shrouds in a 1st century CE rock-cut tomb in the Hinnom Valley, just below the old city of Jerusalem. The tomb had been looted a short time before, but the looters did not open one niche, which was therefore left sealed since its last use in antiquity.

The burial niche within a 1st century CE rock-cut tomb in Jrerusalem, containing bone fragments, and a burial shroud.

The burial niche within a 1st century CE rock-cut tomb in Jrerusalem, containing bone fragments, and a burial shroud.

Being sealed, it preserved even organic material: some unrecognizable black material, bones, pieces of hair and some textile remains.

Organic materials 2000 years old are a very rare find in the Jerusalem area, especially textiles. Gibson and Zissu at first thought these were fragments of clothing added to the tomb at a later date, but Orit Shamir, an expert in ancient textiles, found resemblance in the threads and weaving style to contemporary Roman textiles.

Textile fragments found in the tomb

Textile fragments found in the tomb proved to be of wool and linen. microscopic inspection revealed also human hair, indicating the shroud was used to cover the head too

And a few weeks later Carbon 14 tests on the textile remains proved they were indeed from the Roman period. It means that these fabrics were actually burial shrouds, not clothes. Jews in the Roman period did not bury their dead in clothes, but wrapped in shrouds. The New Testament indicates this practice too: “Then he [=Joseph of Arimathea] bought fine linen, took him [=Jesus] down, and wrapped him in the linen. And he laid him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock” (Mark 15:46). The shrouds were mainly made of wool, but some were linen. Shamir suggested this shroud was not locally made but rather imported, from Greece or Italy. The use of costly and imported shrouds is known from contemporary Jewish sources, and was apparently another expression of wealth by the upper classes, most of whom were the priestly families. The sages recorded in the Talmud discussed this issue and Rabbi Gamliel ruled that all dead should be buried only with simple linen shrouds. Whether this rule was always observed or not is not known.

Following analysis of the shrouds, the IAA requested a committee of specialists in various disciplines to inspect the rest of the organic remains from the tomb. The bones were examined by a team of physicians from Hadassah Medical Hospital in Ein-Kerem, while Dr A Gorsky, a world reputed forensic investigator, examined the hair remains. Recently the results of their inspections were published.

The Tomb of the Leper

It turns out the person buried in a shroud within the sealed niche was a male adult who suffered from tuberculosis and leprosy, which also caused his death. Pieces of head hair found in one of the shroud fragments indicated that the burial shrouds covered his whole body. This too is paralleled in the New Testament: “He [=Lazarus]who had died came out bound hand and foot with graveclothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth”(John 11:44). Based on all these finds Gibson and Zissuproduced an artistic reconstruction of how the body was laid in the niche, fully bound by shrouds.

Reconstruction of the burial niche in which were found the bones and a burial shroud of a leper.

Reconstruction of the burial niche in which were found the bones and a burial shroud of a leper.

But how did this rare find survive the ages? Gibson and Zissu suggest the poor man was banned from society as he suffered from both tuberculosis and leprosy. When he died, his family, presumably wealthy, claimed the body and made sure he was properly buried in a niche of the family tomb. But fearing contamination, his family did not bother to move his bones to a repository, as was the custom in that period. As a result his burial niche was left undisturbed, until now.

While compiling my report on the shrouds from Hinnom valley in Jerusalem I tried contacting Dr Gibson for some information, but to my surprise I did not get any response from him for several days, either by email or by phone. When he did answer I was surprised and saddened to hear that while conducting the excavation atZuba cave, he fell into a pit and broke his leg! He will be wearing a cast for some time to come. Photographed by one of the volunteers, I convinced Dr Gibson to let me publish the picture as a warning to all archaeologists in the future. While excavating, or working anywhere else, don’t take the term “break a leg” too literally!..

Dr Shimon Gibson

Dr Shimon Gibson broke a leg while working at the dig site