Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

Ossuaries and Sarcophagi

Ossuaries are small chests in which the bones of the dead were placed after the flesh had decayed. Sarcophagi are body-length coffins made of stone or marble, clay and marble, which were used for primary burials (the term is from the Greek meaning "flesh-eater"). The earliest ossuaries found in Ereẓ Israel are from the Chalcolithic period. Ceramic ossuaries have been found at Ḥaderah, Bene-Berak, Azor, and Peqi'in. Some are shaped like a four-legged receptacle with a vaulted roof, a door with a bolt in the facade, and windows in the rear, and are thought to resemble dwellings of the period. The ossuaries have painted decorations and some of their facades are given the appearance of a human face. Ceramic anthropoid coffins dating to the transitional period between the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age, which imitate the shape of Egyptian mummies, have been found at Deir el-Balah (near Gaza) and at Beth-Shean. During the Iron Age neither ceramic nor stone coffins were used for burial purposes.


Known in Ereẓ Israel particularly from the Second Temple period and onwards, elongated sarcophagi decorated with plant motifs have been uncovered in "Herod's family tomb" and in the "Tombs of the King" in Jerusalem, and also in a large tomb on The Mount of Olives. Especially remarkable is the ornamentation of the vaulted lid of a sarcophagus from the "Tombs of the Kings," which is carved with plants common to the country, vine and olive branches, etc. Wooden coffins from this period have been found at Ein-Gedi, one of which was inlaid with bone. In the Roman period, many carved sarcophagi made of marble were introduced into the country from abroad. A sarcophagus discovered near Caesarea portrays a battle between Greeks and Amazons, another from Turmus Aiya is carved with representations of the seasons. Sarcophagi are also known from tombs in Samaria (in a third-century C.E. tomb), one depicts peasants taking their produce to market. A sarcophagus with mythological scenes (Achilles among the daughters of Lycomedes; Leda) was found in the Bet She'arim cemetery (possibly in secondary use). Lead coffins which were cast in Tyre, Ashkelon, and Jerusalem were common in the third-fourth centuries; molds were employed for their decorations. Early Christian sarcophagi bear reliefs depicting scenes from the Bible and the Gospels. In the Byzantine period, the use of sarcophagi died out.


Small stone chests, used for the secondary interment of human bones, were extremely popular among the Jewish population during the Second Temple period, i.e., between c. 40 B.C.E. and 135 C.E.. Ossuaries found by Hachlili at Jericho are dated to a more restricted time period: 10–68 C.E. They are mainly known from tombs in the vicinity of Jerusalem, but examples are known from Galilee (e.g., Nazareth), the Shephelah (e.g., Modi'in), and the lower Jordan River region (e.g., Jericho). A typical ossuary had a length of about 2.5 ft., so that it might accommodate the long bone of an adult leg, which is the longest bone in a human body. The ossuaries taper slightly toward the bottom; some stand on four low legs; they are made of soft limestone with flat or vaulted lids. Many contain scratched inscriptions on their sides in cursive Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, or in two languages (a few inscriptions were made with charcoal). In most cases only the name of the deceased or his family status is given, e.g., "Mother"; some inscriptions, however, are longer, e.g., "Dostos our father – do not open," or "The bones of the sons of Nicanor, who made the doors" (i.e., those of the *Nicanor gate in the Second Temple). In some cases (mostly in the burial of small children) one ossuary served for the bones of more than one body. The chests are sometimes decorated with a red or yellow wash of paint, but the usual decorations are chip-carved and chiseled decorations, with some designs executed using a compass. The surface of the ossuary was generally divided into two fields by square frames formed by a wavy line between two straight ones. The squares were filled with a rosette motif, usually with six leaves, but there are considerable variations in its form, as well as in the decoration of the surrounding surface, by the use of dots, wreaths, etc. The double-rosette motif is a very common decoration on ossuaries, and Wilkinson has suggested they might have been symbols used to invoke cherubim – the winged creatures on the inner curtain of the Tabernacle (Ex. 26:31). Some ossuaries are decorated with representations of plants, buildings, or parts of them (columns, capitals), gates. Various cross-like scratches and other marks sometimes appear on ossuaries and their lids (erroneously regarded by early scholars as Judeo-Christian symbols), and these were probably made by the stone craftsmen who carved the chests and wished to ensure their proper closure.


Y. Brand, Kelei ha-Ḥeres be-Sifrut ha-Talmud (1953), ch. 12, 20; Clermont-Ganneau, Arch, 1 (1899), 381ff.; R. Schutz, in: MGWJ, 75 (1931), 286ff.; L.H. Vincent. in: RB. 43 (1934), 564ff.; Watzinger, Denkmaeler, 2 (1935); Galling, Reallexikon, S.V. Sarkophag, Ossuar; Frey, Corpus, 2 (1952), 245ff.; A.G. Barrois, Manual d'archéologie biblique, 2 (1953), 308ff.; Goodenough, Symbols, 1 (1953), 110ff.; 3 (1953), nos. 105–230; Perrot, in: Atiqot, 3 (1961), 1ff. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: E.M. Meyers, Jewish Ossuaries: Reburial and Rebirth (1971): I. Singer (ed.), Graves and Burial Practices in the Ancient Period (1994); L.Y. Rahmani, A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries (1994); R. Hachlili and A. Killebrew, Jericho: The Jewish Cemetery of the Second Temple Period (1999); Y. Billig, "The Use of Ossuaries for Secondary Burial During the Second Temple Period," in: Judea and Samaria Research Studies, 13 (2004), 51–55; A.M. Berlin, "Jewish Life Before the Revolt: The Archaeological Evidence," in: Journal for the Study of Judaism, 36 (2005), 453ff.

[Michael Avi-Yonah /

Shimon Gibson (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.