Ossuaries: Granaries for the Soul?

Sidebar to: Excarnation: Food For Vultures

Why were the bones of these Chalcolithic people placed in ossuaries instead of simply buried? Ever since the first Chalcolithic ossuaries were discovered by Eleazar Sukenik in 1935, the meaning of these strange burial boxes has provided fertile ground for scholarly speculation. The prevailing scholarly opinion has been that the Chalcolithic people wished to bury their dead in house-shaped models. This, it was said, perpetuated the Neolithic practice of burying the deceased under the floors of houses. The idea behind this is perhaps similar to the beliefs of some African tribes, who “bring home” their dead chiefs and bury them in the village compound. There are no Chalcolithic dwellings that look at all like the ossuaries, however. So some scholars suggest that such homes must have been built of perishable materials. Others suggest that the four little legs found on some ossuaries represent the stilts of houses built in marshy areas like the Sharon plain—another far-fetched idea.

Another avenue will be more productive: At Byblos, on the Mediterranean coast of northern Lebanon, French archaeologist Maurice Dunand recovered more than 1,200 Chalcolithic storage jars that had also been used for burials.1 Dunand proposed that the people of the Chalcolithic attempted to include the dead among the living and that there was a symbolic connection between the bones of the deceased and the grain that was typically stored in these jars. (Remember the little copper vessels from the Cave of the Treasure, described in the accompanying article, shaped like Chalcolithic pithoi where grain was stored.)

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