BAR 27:05, Sep/Oct 2001
Why Bone Boxes?
Splendor of Herodian Jerusalem reflected in burial practices
People who hear of it for the first time are always surprised: Ancient Jews practiced secondary burial, gathering into bone boxes called ossuaries the bones of their dead a year or so after death, when the flesh had desiccated and fallen off.
Ossilegium, as scholars call it today, was practiced by Jews mainly in Jerusalem and environs for about a hundred yearsfrom just before the turn of the era until the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. (the late Second Temple period). The body was first placed on a shelf carved in a burial cave; after it decayed the bones were transferred to an ossuary. Ossilegium is also known from numerous other cultures. It was practiced, for example, in western Asia Minor, in the area around Ephesus, at about the same time as in Jerusalem.