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Unity and Diversity in the Talpiot Wreath and Gable Tomb

It has been pointed out on various occasions that burial caves normally represent the members of an extended family and not a nuclear family. This extended family might incorporate certain individuals who were beloved and not genetically linked to the family. However, it is generally recognized that the named individuals on the ossuaries comprise the names of significant family members: for example, the Benei Hezir tomb, the Kallon family tomb, the Caiaphas family tomb, and the Boethus family tomb, all of which have names of recognized priests or priestly lines in the literature. Tombs of Jewish immigrants from the diaspora are normally inscribed in Greek and include the Simon of Cyrene family tomb, the Ariston family tomb, the Eros family tomb, and the Nicanor family tomb, among others. Indigenous family tombs from Jerusalem, presently numbering close to a thousand, include examples from the Kidron Valley, the Mount of Olives, the Hinnom Valley, Talpiot, and the areas especially to the north, south and west. Others appear to the east in Bethany and in Jericho, especially the Goliath family tomb. Many of these contain clusters of names which help to build a family tree. Some contain one name or none at all.

This raises the question as to whether we can distinguish various sectors of the various families into subdivisions which might in fact comprise nuclear families. In the present tomb from Talpiot, there are a number of distinquishing factors among the ossuaries which might provide a starting point in subdividing this extended family. These distinctions could provide us with hints at the history and self definition of the various facets of this family. (For more a handy and more detailed description of these family tombs see R. Hachlili, Jewish Funerary Customs. pp. 236-310)

A brief list of the most obvious distinctions are as follows:

1) Use of the ossuaries for secondary burial (as opposed to non-use of ossuaries).

2) The presence or absence of inscribed names on ossuaries.

3) The style of the ossuaries and their decorations.

4) Language: Greek versus Hebrew/Aramaic names.

5) The style of script on the ossuaries.

1) Use of the ossuaries for secondary burial (as opposed to non-use of ossuaries).

First of all, if a tomb has ossuaries, the period it was in use for ossuaries would have been some time from about 30 BCE to 70 CE (a bit later outside of Jerusalem). Most such tombs will also have burial niches called loculi and arcosolia. However tombs with loculi and arcosolia extend back to the Hellenistic period (3rd to 4th cent. BCE) and elsewhere (e.g., Beth Shearim) extend forward into the late Roman period .

On an average, more than half of the skeletons in a tomb are found outside of the ossuaries. About 1.7 skeletons are found inside an ossuary. (See A. Kloner’s statistics on this tomb in Atiquot 1996). The individual skeletons that are not in ossuaries may be explained in various ways. They may be from outside the century that ossuaries were utilized. They may be from a part of the family that didn’t use or couldn’t afford to have its own ossuary. They may have been removed from the ossuary to make room for other family members.

2) The presence or absence of inscribed names on ossuaries.

In one extended family tomb on Mt. Scopus (excavated by V. Sussmann and J. Zias) 88 skeletons were found accompanied by 15 ossuaries but with only one inscribed name on an ossuary. On an average, about one in five ossuaries bear names. This makes the present tomb in Talpiot very unusual in that 6 of its 10 ossuaries have names inscribed on them. This may be significant as an indication of literacy in the family, or it can merely be a difference in an individual family custom or preference (like whether they make family movies or exchange Christmas cards).

3) The style of the ossuaries and their decorations.

Ossuary styles vary considerably, as can be seen within the tomb in question.

The surface of three of the ossuaries (80.502, 80.504 and 80.505) were “rough dressed” with a chisel. Dissimilarities in the scoring patterns left by the chisel marks indicate that a different chisel was used for carving each ossuary. (All three of these were inscribed in a deeply cut lapidary script).

One ossuary (80.503) was smoothed but plain, without ornamentation. (It was, however, inscribed with the so-called “Yeshua bar Yehosef” inscription.)

Five ossuaries (80.500, 80.501, 80.506, 80.507, 80.508) were “Chip carved”, i.e., both smoothed and with deeply incised or carved designs on one long side. In all five cases the the design was comprised of two rosettes which were surrounded by frames composed of rippled lines. Two of these bore inscriptions (80.500, 80.501).

4) Language: Greek versus Hebrew/Aramaic names.

Five of the six inscribed ossuaries bore names in Hebrew or Aramaic (80.501, 80.502, 80.503, 80.504, 80.505). One inscription was in Greek (80.500). Two had the names of two individuals (80.500, 80.503) overinscribed.

5) The style of script on the ossuaries.

Three were deeply inscribed in large letters in Hebrew Lapidary Script which sports hollow serifs (80.502, 80.504, 80.505). One was written in a smaller Hebrew Lapidary script more reminiscent of manuscript formal style with filled serifs, and not so deeply inscribed as the previous. One was inscribed at first in non-serifed block letters and then the first name was overinscribed in a cursive script (80.503). One ossuary (80.501) was inscribed on two separate occasions in separate Greek styles: documentary and cursive.

Three main ossuary subgroups are apparent:

I. 80.502, 80.504 and 80.505 were “rough dressed” with a chisel. These were also the only ossuaries that were deeply inscribed (1 to 2 mm deep) in a lapidary script with hollow serifs. None of the three names are formal names.

IIa-c. 80.500, 80.501, 80.506, 80.507, and 80.508 were “chip carved”, i.e., both smoothed and with deeply incised or carved designs on one long side. In all five cases, the design was comprised of two rosettes which were surrounded by frames composed of rippled lines. Of the three subcategories below, the differences were not significant enough at this point to define clear separations among them. However the fact that one of these was inscribed in Greek and the other inscribed in Aramaic is significant to note.

IIa. 80.500 was chip carved, decorated with rosettes and was inscribed in Greek documentary and cursive scripts.

IIb. 80.501 was chip carved, decorated with rosettes and was inscribed in Aramaic.

IIc. 80.506, 80.507 and 80.508 were chip carved, decorated with rosettes and were uninscribed.

III. 80.503 was smoothed and left undecorated. It was inscribed in Hebrew/Aramaic. First hand: semi-cursive to semi-formal script. Second hand: Jewish cursive script. It is the only ossuary with a patronym: “bar/ben Yehosef”.

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