30 April 2024

Ossuaries, archaeological witnesses of the first Christian community


What are ossuaries and what can we learn from them about the history of the first Christian community and their funerary practices? Margherita Capuani, a young archaeologist and volunteer at the Terra Sancta Museum – Archaeology, helps us understand the importance of these objects.

The collections of the SBF at the Terra Sancta Museum – Archaeology comprise an important group of ossuaries dated from the time of Herod (from 50 BC to 100 AD). These objects are chests made of local stone to hold the bones of one or several deceased people. Their maximum length generally corresponds to that of a femur, the longest bone in the skeleton.

A portion of the ossuary collection preserved by the Terra Sancta Museum-Archaeology.

These artefacts are typical of the region of Judea-Palestine and are evidence of the funerary practice known as the second burial. In this Jewish tradition, widespread at that period, the deceased’s body was initially washed, anointed, covered with a shroud and then placed in a tomb. The bones were collected at the end of the process of decomposition and placed in the ossuary, which in the end was put in a funeral chamber or a specific compartment of the tomb.


Most of the ossuaries on display at the Terra Sancta Museum – Archaeology come from the Roman necropolis of Dominus Flevit (on the Mount of Olives). They were discovered in the 1950s during the archaeological excavations directed by fra Bellarmine Bagatti (1905-1990).

Some of the ossuaries are painted, generally in yellow or red, and display rich decorations in the form of plant (rosettes, acanthus and palm trees) and geometrical motifs (architectural elements). Three of them are on show in the rooms of the museum dedicated to the Dominus Flevit and daily life in the time of Jesus.

The ossuary collection preserved in the room dedicated to daily life in the time of Jesus.


The first one was discovered with its bones (today kept separately). It has a pair of rosettes with six petals, separated by a large column on a pedestal and a capital with a frieze of swastikas (a recurring element in the architecture of the Herodian era) and Ionic volutes. Four names of the deceased are engraved in Greek above the rosette on the left: Zechariah, Marianna, Lazarus and Simon. The last name is also repeated in Hebrew.

The first ossuary featuring four engraved names

The second ossuary is decorated with two large flowers with eight petals, separated in the centre by a small palm tree and framed by a wide band with a motif of diamonds. The cover is in the shape of a double-gabled roof, decorated with four rosettes with six petals each, included in a circle.

The second ossuary, richly decorated.

The third ossuary has its surface entirely covered by red paint and is adorned on one long side and on one short side: the long side has two rosettes with six petals enclosed in three concentric circles, and separated from one another by a zigzag line. The short side presents the same decoration, but in smaller proportions.

The third ossuary, covered in red paint.


The museum also has ossuaries which are aesthetically more sober but of great archaeological importance. These specimens are decorated with inscriptions, engraved or made in charcoal, in Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic. These names of the deceased provide invaluable information on the population of ancient Jerusalem. One ossuary exhibited in the room on Daily Life in the time of Jesus has on two sides the name of Ismael repeated four times, in Greek and in Hebrew. Whatever the direction in which the ossuary was placed, Ismael himself or a relative made sure that the name remained legible.

The fourth ossuary engraved with the name Ismael.

Other specimens have numerous names mentioned in the Gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles, such as Jesus, Mary, Martha, Zechariah, Simon or Judas. They seem to be linked to what Fathers Bagatti and Milik identified as the first “Judeo-Christian” community.

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