Ossuaries

OSSUARIES. Small boxes of varying size usually made of limestone or baked clay, and often decorated with carved geometrical patterns. The bones of the dead were placed in these after the flesh had decayed and they were then deposited in special tombs, often large enough for a family or even several families. Here a series of shelves (loculi) cut into the walls of the excavated rock chamber housed the ossuaries. Although the term “ossuary” is not Biblical (Lat. ossuarium, “bone container,”), such boxes were used widely in Biblical times. Possibly the ancient baked clay representation of a house dating from Chalcolithic times (c. 4000-3300 b.c.) and now on display in the Palestine Archaelogical Museum was an ossuary. Generally, however, ossuaries date from the early Rom. period. Many hundreds have been found in Pal. both Jewish and Christian in origin. They vary in size from about twenty to thirty inches long, twelve to twenty inches wide and ten to sixteen inches deep. Of particular value are ossuaries inscribed with Heb., Aram. or Gr. giving the name of the departed and sometimes a brief additional sentence. Names like Salome, Judah, Simeon, Martha, Eleazar, Nathaniel, Jesus (Joshua) are common.

Bibliography

C. H. Kraeling, “Christian Burial Urns?” BA, IX (1946), 16-20.