A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Carvings on an ancient ossuary in the Cincinnati Art Museum depict a pyramid-topped tomb in Jerusalem according to University of Cincinnati professor Steven Fine, who was the first to recognize the significance of the engravings. The discovery adds to the small number images that show what Jerusalem looked like in the first century.
Fine, who heads the university's Judaic Studies department, noticed the carvings when he visited the museum and saw a small stone chest or ossuary of the type produced in Jerusalem between about 20 B.C. and A.D. 66. When Fine, who has written extensively about ossuaries, looked at it more closely, he realized that carved onto its side was a unique depiction of a building resting upon a broad pedestal and topped with three triangles representing ancient pyramids, or cones, atop a tomb. "I immediately knew that I was looking at the stylized image of a massive Jerusalem tomb of the first century, the period of the early Rabbi known simply as Hillel, and of Jesus of Nazareth," says Fine.
According to Fine, scholars have found images of mausoleums topped with single pyramids on a few other ossuaries in recent years, but the one in Cincinnati is unique because it shows three pyramids. That pyramids once graced Jerusalem's skyline is not news. One example is the first-century Tomb of the Kings, the burial place of the queen of Adiabene and her son. The ancient author Josephus Flavius and Rabbinic sources describe how the royal family of this Central Asian site converted to Judaism and Josephus notes that their tomb was surmounted by three pyramids. Only fragments of the pyramids from this tomb have been found, says Fine, and no tomb with more than one pyramid is still standing in Jerusalem. The Tomb of Zechariah and the Tomb of Jason both have single pyramids; the Tomb of Absalom is crowned by a single cone.
Ossuaries came into use with the rise of Herod the Great and disappeared after the fall of Jerusalem during the Roman war of A.D. 66-73. Most people were buried in the ground in the first century, but the city's wealthier inhabitants received more elaborate treatment after death. The deceased were placed in a niche in their family tomb, perhaps in a wooden coffin, and allowed to decompose for a year or so. Then their bones were gathered and placed in stone ossuaries (the Cincinnati ossuary is 18.2 inches long, 6.7 inches wide, and 8 inches high). According to Fine, ossuaries were originally a way to save space in family tombs, a method also known from western Asia Minor at about the same time.
Fine's full study of ossuary in Cincinnat will appear in the Journal of Jewish Studies next year.