Photo Essay: Ancient Jerusalem's Necropolis

Jodi Magness, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


Oxford Biblical Studies | Photo Essay: Jerusalem's Necropolis
Fig. 1. Fig. 1.  Stone chamber tomb. Courtesy Jodi Magness.
Fig. 1. Stone chamber tomb. Courtesy Jodi Magness.

Ancient Jerusalem was surrounded by a necropolis of rock-cut tombs. These tombs, which date to the late First Temple period (eighth century to 586 B.C.E.) and the late Second Temple period (first century B.C.E. to 70 C.E.), are characterized by the following features:

  1. 1. The tombs are artificially hewn, underground caves cut into the bedrock slopes around Jerusalem.

  2. 2. With few exceptions, the tombs were located outside the walls of the city.

  3. 3. Each tomb was used by a family over the course of several generations, as described by the biblical expression "he slept with his fathers" (for example Judges 2:10; 2 Chronicles 34:28).

  4. 4. When a member of the family died, the body was wrapped in a shroud and sometimes placed in a coffin, and then was laid in the tomb, even if the bones were later collected and placed elsewhere.

  5. 5. Because of the expense associated with hewing a burial cave into bedrock, only the wealthier members of Jerusalem's population—the upper classes—could afford rock-cut tombs. The lower classes apparently disposed of their dead in a manner that has left fewer traces in the archaeological record, for example in individual trench graves or cist graves dug into the ground.

  6. 6. From the earliest periods, the layout and decoration of Jerusalem's rock-cut tombs exhibited foreign cultural influences and fashions. Evidence for such influence—and indeed, for the use of rock-cut tombs—is attested only in times when Jerusalem's Jewish elite enjoyed an autonomous or semi-autonomous status, that is, in the late First Temple period and the late Second Temple period. During these periods, the Jerusalem elite adopted foreign fashions that were introduced by the rulers or governing authorities.

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