Casket resurrects new vision of ancient Jerusalem

September 19, 2002

Cincinnati -- Despite massive excavations in recent years, few images exist to tell us what Jerusalem looked like in the first century - a period important to Christians as their founding as well as to Jews because of the flourishing and ultimate destruction of the Temple. That's why University of Cincinnati professor Steven Fine was thrilled - and surprised - to find an overlooked view of this revered city and era in an ancient artifact displayed at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Visiting the museum, Fine, the head of the Judaic Studies department in UC's McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, was excited to see some of the gifts of Nelson Glueck on display. He noticed a small stone burial casket of the type produced in Jerusalem between about 20 B.C. and 66 A.D. Fine had written extensively on these artifacts, known as ossuaries and was intrigued enough to look more closely. That's when Fine made a discovery of his own. He noticed a unique image carved into the surface of the ossuary: 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," he says.

In recent years a few other images on ossuaries showing mausoleums topped with pyramids have also come to the attention of scholars. The Cincinnati ossuary image is unique, however, because three pyramids are presented, Fine says.

The scholar reports on his discovery in the published version of his 2001 Rabbi Louis Feinberg Memorial Lecture, Art and Identity in Latter Second Temple Period Judaea: The Hasmonean Royal Tombs at Modi'in, which is scheduled for distribution Oct. 29 at the final lecture of Judaic Studies' Lichter Lecture Series at UC. Fine's full report on the ossuary will appear next year in the prestigious Journal of Jewish Studies, published in Oxford (England). Scholars have long known that pyramids once graced the Jerusalem skyline. One example is the Tomb of the Kings, the burial place of a royal family from Central Asia that converted to Judaism during the first century. Literary sources suggest this tomb also had three pyramids above it, Fine says. But none of these structures with more than one pyramid is still standing in Jerusalem, he notes.

"The Tomb of the Kings is there in Jerusalem, but they have only found little pieces of the pyramids, not the pyramids," he says. Also in Jerusalem are the Tomb of Zechariah and the Tomb of Jason, which have single pyramids on top, and the Tomb of Absalom, which is crowned with a cone. A structure with five pyramids carved into the side of a hill still stands at Petra in Jordan, Fine notes.

In first-century Jerusalem, ossuaries were commonly used to store the skeletal remains of loved ones after they had decomposed for a year or so in a tomb or mausoleum. The ossuary in this case measures 18.2 inches long, 6.7 inches wide and 8 inches high.

Glenn Markoe, curator of classical and near Eastern art at Cincinnati Art Museum, welcomes Fine's interpretation of the ossuary carving. "We're always trying to learn things by excavating our own collections here. There's all kinds of wonderful information hidden in the museum's objects and works of art," he says.

Fine now marvels at the process and chance of discovery. He notes that you don't have to be an archaeologist who excavates to make a significant discovery about ancient life. "This whole process of discovery can take a number of different paths," he says. "You have to keep your eyes open."

University of Cincinnati

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