During June 2002, a salvage excavation was conducted in seven burial caves in the East Talpiyot neighborhood of Jerusalem (Permit No. A-3656; map ref. NIG 222/629; OIG 172/129), which were damaged by private construction. The excavation, on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, was directed by Z. ‘Adawi, with the assistance of T. De‘adle and B. Touri (assistants to excavation director), A. Hajian and V. Pirsky (surveying and drafting), D. Weiss (GPS), B. Zissu (field photography), A. Pikovsky (pottery drawing) and O. Raviv (stone laboratory).
The burial caves (A–G; Fig. 1), hewn in soft limestone bedrock, were found in two clusters, c. 500 m apart; Caves A–C (map ref. 22326/62967; Fig. 2)—in the northern slope of Jebel el- Mukkabir and Caves D–G (map ref. 22254–8/62950–1)—in the northern slope of Armon Ha-Naziv. The northern side of Caves A–C, which were adjacent to each other, was destroyed. The sides of these three caves displayed numerous fissures and the rock-cutting was careless and incomplete in many places. The artifacts recovered from all of the caves included a few potsherds, smashed bones and fragments of clay ossuaries. Soil fill that originated in the caves and was found next to the two clusters contained fragments of ossuaries and lids that dated to the Second Temple period. An engraved inscription was discovered on several fragments that belonged to one lid (below). Based on their plan and the ceramic artifacts, it seems that the caves were hewn in the Early Roman period (the time of the Second Temple) and formed part of Jerusalem’s southern necropolis. Artifacts that pointed out to the apparent use of the caves in later periods were discovered in several caves.
Cave A. The cave included a rectangular chamber whose quarrying was incomplete (L1; c. 1.7 × 2.2 m, height c. 1.25 m). It connected to a niche (L11; c. 0.70 × 0.75 m, depth c. 0.25 m) and two burial kokhim (L2—0.55 × 1.70 m, height 0.75 m; L3—0.6 × 1.6 m, height 0.75 m) that were at a higher level than that of the chamber and niche. The remains of another niche (L14; 0.20 × 0.55 m, height c. 0.4 m), which may also have belonged to this cave, were discovered west of Kokh 3. The bottom of the cave was overlain with alluvium (thickness c. 0.2 m), which yielded smashed human bones and several potsherds that could not be dated.
Cave B. The front of the cave (width 2.2 m, height 1.9 m) was vertically hewn in a meticulous manner, yet the opening of the cave was not preserved. The cave consisted of two chambers (Loci 4, 13) and a burial kokh (L12). A bench (width c. 0.5 m, height c. 0.44 m) was cut along the eastern side of Chamber 4 (c. 2.25 × 2.40 m, average height 1.2 m) and a carved-out bone repository (L5; 0.5 × 0.5 m, depth 0.2 m) was at the foot of the bench, near the chamber’s northern side. A hewn step (length 1.6 m, width 0.4, height 0.2 m) at the base of the chamber’s southern side extended between the western side and the bench. A rectangular opening (width 0.5 m, height 0.6 m) that led to Chamber 13 (width 2.7 m) was hewn in the southern side of the chamber. A hewn double frame that had partly collapsed surrounded the opening. Kokh 12 (0.70 × 1.40–1.95 m, height 0.7 m), east of the two chambers and connected to them, was hewn at the level of Chamber 4. The cave’s ceiling was not straight and cracks that existed at the time of quarrying the cave were clearly visible. Yellowish gray alluvium (thickness 0.2–0.3 m) that was discovered on the bottom of the cave contained fragments of a thin-walled carinated bowl with a plain rim (Fig. 3:3), dating from the end of the first century BCE to the year 70 CE, as well as smashed human bones.
Cave C. The cave comprised a small chamber (L8), two burial kokhim (Loci 6, 9) and a niche (L7). The plan of the space that connected the different components of the cave is unclear. Chamber 8 was rectangular (1.05 × 1.70 m, height 0.7 m) and its quarrying was incomplete. Kokh 6 (0.6 × 1.9 m, height 0.7 m) was hewn at the same level as Chamber 8, whereas Kokh 9 (0.9 × 2.0 m, height 0.8 m) was at a lower level than Chamber 8. It is possible that Niche 7 (0.5 × 0.6 m, height 0.5 m) was intended as a bone repository or perhaps, it was a burial kokh whose quarrying was not finished. Brown alluvium (thickness 0.15–0.30 m), overlaying the bottom of Chamber 8 and Kokh 6, contained fragments of a cup (Fig. 3:1), cooking pots (Fig. 3:6, 8) and a jar (Fig. 3:9) that dated to the Early Roman period, particularly the first century CE, as well as a fragment of a Jerusalem rouletted bowl (Fig. 3:4) and a jar (Fig. 3:10) that dated to the Late Roman–Byzantine period (third–fourth centuries CE). It is possible that the later vessels were either swept into the cave or associated with later phases of use in the cave.
Cave D (Fig. 4). The cave, which had been plundered in the past, consisted of an elongated rectangular space (L310) that may have served as an anteroom and two burial chambers (Loci 301, 302). Space 310 (6.2×8.3 m, height 3.5 m) was destroyed by mechanical equipment and is today open to the north. Another cavity (L311; 3.8×9.0 m, height 2.7 m), accessed through the southeastern side of Space 310, became narrower and lower toward the inside. This was probably another chamber of the cave whose quarrying was never finished. Space 310 was used as an animal pen in recent generations. An opening (width 0.4 m, height 0.65 m; Fig. 5) hewn in the western side of Space 310 led to the two burial chambers. The opening was composed of a large ashlar threshold stone (length 1.15 m, height 0.45 m), with doorjambs and a lintel, carved out from a single block of stone, above it. Chamber 302 (2.4×2.7 m) was partly excavated. Arched, rectangular openings were hewn in the western, southern and northern sides of the chamber. The southern and western openings probably led to kokhim or other burial chambers. The northern opening (0.45×0.60 m, height 1.1 m) led to Chamber 301, whose northern part (2.2×2.3 m, height 1.8 m) was destroyed during earthmoving work. A standing pit (1.2–1.3×1.9 m, depth 0.2 m) in this chamber was enclosed by a bedrock shelf (width 0.5 m). Two kokhim (L303—0.7×1.9 m, depth 0.75 m; L304—0.5×2.0 m, depth 0.75 m) were discovered in Chamber 301. Kokh 303 was mostly destroyed, save its bottom and southern side. On a higher level above Kokh 304 was an arched niche (0.6×1.2 m, height 1.15 m) that consisted of three hewn kokhim (L305—0.35×0.85 m, height 0.6 m; L306—0.3×0.6 m, height 0.55 m; L307—0.35×0.85 m, height 0.55 m). Kokh 307 was in the center and on a higher level than Kokhim 305 and 306 (Fig. 4: Section 3-3). The dimensions of the kokhim indicate that they may have been meant for ossuaries. The artifacts in the standing pit of Chamber 301 included fragments of several ossuaries and a lid, human bones that belonged to at least one individual, and a jar fragment (Fig. 3:12) that dated to the Ottoman period.
Cave E (Figs. 6, 7). Most of the cave was damaged by mechanical equipment during earthmoving work and its remains were discerned in the bedrock section. Remains of five kokhim (width 0.60–0.65 m, height 0.75–0.85 m) were visible; three were hewn in the southern side of the cave (Loci 401–403) and two—in its western side (Loci 404, 405). Remains of fours steps that descended toward the cave, probably in a shaft, were discerned on the bedrock side, above the kokhim.
Cave F (Fig. 8). The cave consisted of two square chambers (Loci 500, 514) with hewn kokhim. The entrance was not discovered and it seems to have been hewn in the northern side of the cave that was not preserved. A hewn standing pit (L515; 1.6 × 1.9 m, depth 0.4 m) in Chamber 500 (3.0 × 3.3 m, height 1.75 m) was enclosed by a bedrock shelf (width c. 0.7 m). Three kokhim of similar sizes (Loci 501–506; 0.40–0.45 × 2.00 m, height 0.75 m) were hewn in each of the eastern and southern sides of the chamber. They had an arched ceiling and a rectangular frame around their openings. Human bones were discovered in each of the kokhim, except for Kokh 504. Although the northern side of the chamber was destroyed, the remains of three kokhim (Loci 507–509) were discerned along its bottom and only the dimensions of Kokh 509 could be reconstructed (0.4 × 1.9 m). A hewn opening (0.5 × 1.0 m, height 1 m) in the southwestern corner of the chamber led to Chamber 514. Three arched kokhim were hewn in Chamber 514 (2.3 × 2.3 m, height 1.4 m), one in the southern side (L512; 0.50 × 1.85m, height 0.7 m) and two in the western side (Loci 510, 511; 0.5 × 2.0 m, height 0.7 m). A rock-cut rectangular frame surrounded the openings of Kokhim 510 and 511 and white chalk plaster was applied to the area around them, probably to reinforce the blocking stone that was not preserved. Three illegible letters were engraved in the plaster of Kokh 510 (Fig. 9). A complete blocking stone (0.39×0.54 m) and fragments of two others (width 0.39 m) were discovered in Chamber 500. Potsherds recovered from Kokh 506 included a burnished bowl from Iron III (seventh century BCE; Fig. 3:2), a cooking pot from the end of the first century BCE (Fig. 3:7) and a juglet from the first century CE (Fig. 3:13). It seems that the bowl fragment had been swept into the cave. Several ossuary fragments were discovered in Chamber 514.
Cave G (Fig. 10). The cave consisted of two chambers (I, II) with rock-cut kokhim. A standing pit (L600; c. 2 × 2 m, depth 0.5 m) was hewn in Chamber I (c. 2.9 × 3.1 m). Two hewn kokhim (L601—0.20 × 0.35 m, height 0.5 m; L602—0.5 × 2.1 m, height 0.7 m) were cut in the western side of the chamber. The ceiling of Kokh 602 was concave and Kokh 601 was rounded and became wider toward the interior. A crack in the side of the kokh was partly treated with plaster. It is possible that due to this crack the hewing of the kokh was not completed and it was used as a repository for gathering bones. Two arched kokhim (L606—0.5 × 2.0 m, height 0.7 m; L607—0.45 × 0.60 m, height 0.7 m) were hewn in the eastern side of the chamber and three arched kokhim (L603—0.5 × 2.0 m, height 0.8 m; L605—0.5 × 1.8 m, height 0.75; L604—0.45 × 2.00 m, height 0.65 m) were in the southern side of the chamber, as well as a rectangular niche close to the ceiling (L611—0.40 × 0.45 m, height 0.4 m) that contained bones and had a cut frame around its opening. Inside and on the bottom of Kokh 604 was a hewn elongated opening (0.35 × 0.80, height 0.8 m) that led to Chamber II. A rectangular rock-cut standing pit (L608; 1.2 × 1.4 m, depth 0.25 m), surrounded by a bedrock shelf (width 0.3 m), was cut in Chamber II (1.7 × 2.0 m, height 1.5 m). A single kokh (L609; 0.5 × 2.2 m, height 0.7 m) in the southwestern corner of the chamber had, on its western side, a round hewn niche with a curved ceiling (L610; 0.4 × 0.8 m, height 0.75 m). The finds in Standing Pit 600 included fragments of a cooking pot from the end of the first century BCE (Fig. 3:5), as well as several fragments of an ossuary and lid. The finds in Standing Pit 608 included human bones and fragments of a jar from the first century CE (Fig. 3:11).
Inscription on the Ossuary Lid
Fragments of an ossuary lid with an engraved inscription (Fig. 11:1) were discovered in the excavation. Most of the fragments were restored, although the right side of the inscription was not found. One fragment with three engraved lines (Fig. 11:2) could not be connected to the lid. The lid is convex and the inscription is engraved lengthwise, in the middle of the high part. The left portion of the inscription is easily deciphered: למפתח. All that remained of the lamed is the upper end of the characteristic ‘flag’. The marks to the right of the upper end of the lamed are probably the bottom part of that letter or part of another letter. The letter mem, in the word למפתח is closed (the final form of the letter); first, a long vertical line was engraved, followed by a curved line that was engraved to the right. The reading of the word is unclear and it joins other similar inscriptions that have been found on ossuaries and on the sides of tombs (J. Naveh, 1992, On Sherd and Papyrus; Aramaic and Hebrew Inscriptions from the Second Temple, Mishnaic and Talmudic Periods, Jerusalem, pp. 193–195 [Hebrew]). Nevertheless, the full formula of these inscriptions is ולא למפתח, i.e., ‘and do not open’. Nothing remains of the negation word in the inscription. It should be noted that the part of the ossuary on the right of the long vertical line has deteriorated. The formula ולא למפתח requires an explanation. The first thought that comes to mind is that the inscription was meant to protect the ossuary and the burial contained within it from grave robbers, namely from being opened for the purpose of plundering valuable objects. Then again, we know from tombs and ossuaries discovered undisturbed in Jerusalem that they are completely lacking in luxury items because the placement of valuable objects together with the deceased was not a practiced custom at the end of the Second Temple period. That being the case, what was the reason behind warning people from opening tombs? After all, old bones are of no use to anyone. It seems that the warning was meant to ensure that the bones would not be moved from their location and no other bones would be added to the ossuary. However, it seems that the warning in these inscriptions was not very effective. Many ossuaries contained the bones of more than one individual, despite the fact that according to its size, each ossuary was supposed to contain the remains of a single individual. As a result, harsher warnings were required to prevent the ossuaries from being opened. For example, an inscription on another ossuary (Naveh, ibid., p. 198, Fig. 138) warns that it is forbidden to profit from this ossuary (and by reusing the ossuary one benefits from it) because it (and its contents) were vowed by the deceased as a sacrifice to the Lord.
The right-hand part of the inscription is difficult to decipher. The remains of four symbols are visible, each one is likely to match more than one letter: aleph/zadi, dalet/resh/hey, vav/yod, (final) nun/(final) peh. The two center symbols (the two parts of the second symbol and the third symbol) are also likely to be parts of one letter. It seems that these four symbols are slightly lower than the left part of the inscription and they were probably written separately and not at the same time. A given name should appear here, but the symbols do not form a suffix of a first name that was customary in this period.
The reading ארון (coffin) is the most reasonable, but it is difficult and not actually possible because an ossuary is not a burial coffin; it is referred to in Aramaic as חלה or חלתא (Naveh, ibid., p. 198, Fig. 138; L.Y. Rahmani, 1994. A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries, Jerusalem. Nos. 226, 461, 502). If we suppose that the two middle symbols in the right part belong to one letter, then the following reading can be proposed: 'ל]א הון למפתח' , namely אין לפתוח (אותם) ‘Do not open (them)’.