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Mystery Graves Found near Jerusalem (1997)

Bar-Ilan University recently published a summary of the second conference on the archaeology of Jerusalem, edited by Prof. A. Faust.

Of the 10 lectures given on that occasion, I found one specially interesting. Boaz Zissu reported on a salvage excavation held in southern Jerusalem on a site destined for a main road. The site, partly damaged by the tractors during the infrastructure work, contains an ancient burial site from the Second Temple period. The shape of the graves attracted special attention. Burial caves from that period are always in the shape of a chambered cave. (The cave of the Holy Sepulchre is of this type). And usually they contain ossuaries – stone boxes containing the bones. That was the typical Jewish burial custom of those days and is well attested in ancient Jewish literature. But in this newly found necropolis the nature of the burials was completely different. All graves were constructed of a shaft leading into a single rounded room, and the entrance was blocked by a big flat stone. Most caves contained the remains of one person.

Skeletal analysis revealed the remains of 46 persons, 3 of whom were infants, and at least 16 of them adult females. Very few artifacts were found in the cave but they all attest to the last decades of the Second Temple period, i.e. in the first century AD. A close parallel to this unique burial site can be found only at one other place – Qumran, an isolated settlement on the shore of the Dead Sea (about 30 km. east of Jerusalem), well known for the Dead Sea Scrolls found nearby. Most of the non-biblical literature found among these scrolls relate to Essene philosophy and culture. This literature suggests that the Essenes wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls when they lived and practiced their religion in Qumran, and finally hid them in the surrounding cliffs when the Romans advanced to quell the rebellion in Jerusalem. Forty meters east of Qumran de Vaux’s expedition uncovered the cemetery of the site containing over 1200 burial shafts. Fifty two shafts were excavated and revealed a similar pattern. Most consisted of a shaft leading down to a rounded room, its entrance blocked by a big flat stone. Most of the skeletal remains were of adult males but also of females and infants. Very few artifacts were found within the graves. The resemblance to the tomb found near Jerusalem is strong, and a historical source adds a critical piece of evidence. Joshephus Flavius mentions two Essene sites in south-western Jerusalem – The “Essene Gate” and the site named “Betso” (Wars, V, 144). Could these tombs be of one of the Eseene sites around Jerusalem?. For the time being, this remains a possible speculation.

tomb from Qumran
tomb from Qumran

tomb found near Jerusalem
tomb found near Jerusalem