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."
-end-


University of Cincinnati

Related Tomb Articles from Brightsurf:

Wild birds as offerings to the Egyptian gods
Millions of mummified ibis and birds of prey, sacrificed to the Egyptian gods Horus, Ra or Thoth, have been discovered in the necropolises of the Nile Valley.

First-degree incest: ancient genomes uncover Irish passage tomb dynastic elite
Archaeologists and geneticists, led by those from Trinity College Dublin, have shed new light on the earliest periods of Ireland's human history.

Tang Dynasty noblewoman buried with her donkeys, for the love of polo
A noblewoman from Imperial China enjoyed playing polo on donkeys so much she had her steeds buried with her so she could keep doing it in the afterlife, archaeologists found.

Archaeologists found the burial of Scythian Amazon with a head dress on Don
The burial of the Amazon with a head dress made of precious metal dated back to the second half of the 4th c BC was found by the staff of the Don expedition of IA RAS during the examination of the cemetery Devitsa V of Voronezh Oblast.

Archaeologists find Bronze Age tombs lined with gold
Archaeologists with the University of Cincinnati have discovered two Bronze Age tombs containing a trove of engraved jewelry and artifacts that promise to unlock secrets about life in ancient Greece.

Celebrated ancient Egyptian woman physician likely never existed, says researcher
For decades, an ancient Egyptian known as Merit Ptah has been celebrated as the first female physician and a role model for women entering medicine.

Megadroughts fueled Peruvian cloud forest activity
New research from Florida Tech found that strong and long-lasting droughts parched the usually moist Peruvian cloud forests, spurring farmers to colonize new cropland.

Cretan tomb's location may have strengthened territorial claim
Examining the position occupied by tombs in their landscape in Prepalatial Crete gives us new insights into the role played by burial sites, mortuary practices and the deceased in the living society.

The Neolithic precedents of gender inequality
Inequality between men and women was not generally consolidated in Iberia during the Neolithic.

First examples of Iberian prehistoric 'imitation amber' beads at gravesites
Prehistoric Iberians created 'imitation amber' by repeatedly coating bead cores with tree resins, according to a study published May 1, 2019, in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Carlos Odriozola from Universidad de Sevilla, Spain, and colleagues.

Read More: Tomb News and Tomb Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.