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Tombs and Tombstones

Regular burial of the dead in tombs was customary even in prehistoric times as a manifestation of the beginnings of religious ritual, both among nomads and among settled peoples. In the Neolithic period, deceased tribal heads were regarded as family or tribal totems as attested by clay skulls, with human features, found at Jericho (Kenyon, in bibl.). In the Chalcolithic period it was customary to bury the bones in dry ossuaries after the flesh had disintegrated. There were various forms of ossuaries. Sometimes human features were engraved on the front of the ossuary. *Cemeteries of ossuaries were found mainly on the coastal strip of Ereẓ Israel. Death was viewed as a transition to a different world, where life was continued. The dead and their departed spirits were thought of as powerful, incomprehensible forces threatening the living with a limitless capacity for harm or for good. It was thus customary to place offerings of food and drink in special vessels, which were then buried in the tomb together with the corpse. For example, a platter with a lamb's head upon it has been found in a tomb at Afulah. Gifts given to the dead, either for their use or to propitiate them, were the items most highly prized by the person during his lifetime. Thus, during the Middle Canaanite period it was customary to "kill" the sword of the deceased after its owner's death by bending it and making it useless. During the Late Canaanite period, a man's war horse and chariot were symbolic of his noble status. It was therefore customary to bury a nobleman's weapons and horse with him. In a number of graves at Beth-Eglaim (Tell-ʿAjūl) horses are buried with their riders (Petrie, in bibl.). Burial customs were the most important aspect of the early Egyptian cultic practices. These customs accompanied the death of the king-gods, nobles, and upper classes. The monumental architecture of the Egyptian burial cities, the mummification of the kings, and the embalming of sacred animals, all developed around the Egyptian burial cult (Dawson, in bibl.). Such practices were employed in the great, powerful, and stable kingdoms and in Mesopotamia, though they were not found among the tribes who arrived in Palestine with the wave of ethnic wanderings, during the patriarchal period of the second millennium B.C.E. These wandering tribes did, however, continue the practice of burying various offerings together with their dead, as was customary from the Early Canaanite period on.

During the time of the Patriarchs, when there was a change from tribal wanderings to permanent settlement, a new element was added to the burial customs. A permanent grave site was purchased in the vicinity of the settlement which was a significant indication of permanent settlement. Herein lies the importance of Abraham's purchase of a family tomb (Gen. 23:4). Jacob's request that he be buried at this place rather than in Egypt may be understood against this background (Gen. 47:29). Joseph's burial in Shechem in the land of his ancestors (Josh. 24:32) must be seen as part of the process of Exodus from Egypt and the conquest and settlement of Palestine. This identification of the patriarchal tomb with the Promised Land may be discerned in Nehemiah's remark to the Persian king from whom he requested permission to go to Palestine to rebuild its ruins: "… the place of my father's sepulchers lies waste…" (Neh. 2:3). For a long period of time, from the Patriarchs until the establishment of the monarchy, it was customary to bury the dead in a family plot (Heb. bet ʾavotam) in an effort to maintain contact with the place (e.g., Judg. 2:9; I Sam. 25:1).

During the period of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, sepulchers for kings and nobles were established: "and they buried him [Uzziah] with his fathers in the burial field which belonged to the kings" (II Chron. 26:23). Special mention should be made of the discovery of an engraved tablet bearing the name of Uzziah king of Judah. The tablet cannot be the original one which marked the grave, since its script and its general form are of the Second Temple period. It appears that for various reasons the king's bones were transferred during this period. Noblemen and officers also merited lavish burial. The prophet, fighting the corrupt nobility, denigrates the elegant tombs, hewn out of the rocks (Isa. 22:16). The carving of tombs in elevated places is reminiscent of the grave sites above the Kidron Brook in Jerusalem (Avigad, in bibl.). A number of hewn graves dating to the period of the kings have been found at this location. The most striking of them is a hewn tomb, upon whose lintel appears a dedication to some person who held an administrative position: "…who was over the household." The name of this person ends with the syllable yhw. Conceivably, it may be the same Shebna (Shebaniahu) mentioned in Isaiah 22:16 [15]. Another tomb from the same period is the one called "the grave of Pharaoh's daughter." This tomb is cut from rock into the shape of a cube. It has a small entrance and contains the remains of a striking structure, perhaps pyramidal, on its roof. During certain periods grave markers or tombstones were part of the grave itself (Gen. 35:20). The most luxurious graves from this period found, for example, at Achzib, are hewn according to Phoenician design. The burial cave has a vaulted ceiling, cut as much as 10 m. (33 ft.) deep into the rock. At its end is a catafalque hewn out of rock, upon which the corpse was placed. In order to elevate the head of the corpse, a stone was placed beneath it, or a projection shaped like a raised pillow was left on the catafalque. As a result of the custom of burying items of value from the deceased's lifetime along with him, there arose a class of grave robbers in the Ancient East. To prevent such incursions, complicated grave sealing techniques were developed, along with difficult entrance and exit passages from the interior of the tombs. In many instances it was customary to warn grave robbers against entering. The tomb of "… yhw who was over the household" (mentioned above) contains the inscription: "Cursed be he who opens this." This is similar to the inscriptions common in the Second Temple Period, which contained the name of the deceased and a warning not to open the grave.

Thousands of tombs have been unearthed and investigated during the years of archaeological activities in Israel. Several characteristic grave types have been found:

(1) A communal grave within a cave from the Middle Canaanite period, like one found at Jericho. Dozens of skeletons were found in the cave as well as the offerings buried there (Garstang, in bibl.). In this case, a household or family used a natural cave, which served it for several generations. This type of mausoleum, consisting of some land and a cave, was no doubt the kind acquired by Abraham from Ephron the Hittite near Hebron, when he came to settle permanently in Palestine. The patriarchal sepulcher remained traditional among the people even as late as Herod's time. Among his massive building projects throughout the land, he constructed a Roman-style monument over the patriarchal tomb in Hebron. This monument was intended as an architectural marker of the site and its sanctity.

(2) During the same Middle Canaanite period pit burials were common. For this purpose either natural caves were used or circular or rectangular pits were dug out of the earth to a depth of one to 2 m. (3–6 ft.). The walls of the pit contained the burial niches into which were placed the bodies and the offerings. Each niche would be sealed with a single large stone, and the central pit would be filled in up to ground level, thus preventing any approach to the graves themselves.

(3) In addition to family graves, individual tombs have been found. These too contain gifts to accompany the deceased to his new life. Generally, these gifts were eating and drinking utensils, jewelry, personal seals, etc. The finds from tombs are many and variegated, and by their nature are better preserved than finds from the usual, exposed ancient sites.

(4) Among the graves unearthed from the Late Canaanite period are pit tombs, of the style of the prior period, both of family as well as of individual types and simple inhumations. Graves from this period have been found at Tell Abu Hawām (Hamilton, in bibl.), Achzib, and elsewhere. Special attention was given to the manner in which the body was placed in the grave. Generally, the hands were folded and the legs stretched out. The custom of burying gifts with the dead continued into the Late Canaanite period. Offerings in these graves are either local or imported implements.

(5) At the end of this period another form of burial appears. The corpse is placed into two large ossuaries, or jugs, whose necks have been removed, so that the bodies of the jugs enclose the corpse from the feet up and from the head down. These graves, too, contain offerings and weapons that served the deceased during his lifetime.

(6) At the end of the second millennium B.C.E., with the advent of the Philistines in the land, sites with Philistine population, such as Beth-Shean, exhibit different burial methods. The corpse was provided with a clay coffin, longer than the body. The coffin had a cover near the head, decorated with human features. Such decoration was intended to symbolize the personality of the deceased. The engraved hats and diadems resemble the headdress of the Philistines portrayed on ancient Egyptian monuments (Dothan, in bibl.).

(7) A large quantity of graves, including pit tombs, burial caves, rock-hewn tombs, and individual grave sites, from the Israelite period, have been found at Megiddo, Hazor, Beth-Shean, and other sites. The offerings placed in these graves are usually pottery vessels, such as jars and flasks, some of them imported, as well as jewelry and seals.

(8) The Israelite II and the Persian periods reveal tombs hewn into caves with ledges provided for the corpses, known mainly from the Shephelah and the coastal strip. Tombs of Phoenician style are especially to be found in the Athlit area (Hamilton, in bibl.). These are in the shape of a four-sided pit hewn into the hard rock, with ladderlike sockets for hands and feet, to be used in climbing down the pit. At the bottom of the pit there are one or more hewn openings to the burial niches themselves. These are sealed with large stones. The entrance pit itself is filled with earth and stones to block off the entrance to the graves.

(9) With the close of the Persian period and the beginning of the Hellenistic, the most common form of grave consisted of rock tombs, with raised shelves or ledges, or troughs resembling coffins, near the walls. The typical cave ceiling of this period is in the form of a large camel hump, as in the case of a grave found at Marissah. The walls and ceiling of this grave are decorated with drawings. A tomb of similar design has been found at Nazareth.


W.R. Dawson, in: JEA, 13 (1927), pl. 18, 40–49; W.M.F. Petrie, Beth Pelet I (1930), passim; A. Rowe, The Topography and History of Beth Shan (1930), pl. 37, 39; R.W. Hamilton, Excavation at Tell Abu Hawām (1935); M. Werbrouck, Les pleureuses dans l'Egypte ancienne (1938); J. Finegan, Light from the Ancient Past (1946), 353–98; J. Garstang, The Story of Jericho (1948); A.G. Barrois, Manuel d'archéologie biblique, 2 (1953), 274–323; N. Avigad, Maẓẓevot Kedumot beNaḥal Kidron (1954), 9ff.; K. Kenyon, Digging up Jericho (1957), 95–102, 194–209, 233–55, 665; T. Dothan, The Philistines and their Material Culture (1967); D. Ussishkin, in: Qadmoniot, 2 (1970), 25–27. SECOND TEMPLE AND TALMUD PERIODS: N. Avigad, in: Sefer Yerushalayim, 1 (1956), 320–48. IN ART: N. Avigad, Maẓẓevot Kedumot be-Naḥal Kidron (1954); I. Pinkerfeld, Bi-Shevilei Ommanut Yehudit (1957); M. Gruenwald, Portugiesengraeber auf deutscher Erde (1902); D. Henrique de Castro, Keur van Grafsteenen… Ouderkerk aan den Amstel (Dutch and Ger. 1883); A. Grotte, Alte schlesische Judenfriedhoefe (1927); M. Balaban, Die Judenstadt von Lublin (1919); A. Levy, Juedische Grabmalkunst in Osteuropa (n.d.); O. Muneles and M. Vitimkôvá, Starý židovský hřbitov v Praze (1955); M. Levy, Der alte israelitische Friedhof zu Worms am Rhein (1913); M. Diamant, Juedische Volkskunst (1937); L.A. Mayer, Bibliography of Jewish Art (1967), index; I.S. Emmanuel, Precious Stones of the Jews of Curaçao (1957); Cantera y Burgos et al., Las Inscripciones Hebraicas de España (1955); E.R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols … (13 vols, 1953–68); Roth, Art, index.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.