Gideon Avni/Israel Antiquities Authority

A finer resting place. Two rosettes ornament the side of a limestone ossuary, or bone box, lying in an arched niche (called an arcosolium) in this first-century C.E. family tomb in Akeldama, one of Jerusalem’s largest graveyards. Located south of the Old City, near where the Hinnom and Kidron valleys meet, Akeldama’s monumental rock-cut tombs—about 80 in all—contained hundreds of burials.

Corpses were first placed in a burial niche carved into a cave wall. In this photo, three long, narrow burial niches called loculi (singular, loculus) appear at floor level. After about a year, when the body had decomposed, the skeletal remains of the deceased were removed for secondary burial in an ossuary. The ossuaries were occasionally stored in burial niches, as in the lower right loculus in the photo. The hinged door at the upper right leads to another chamber of the family tomb.

The ornate carving of the tombs and ossuaries, and the rich cache of bottles, lamps, coins, jewelry, kitchenware and other grave goods found at Akeldama, indicate that these were the tombs of Jerusalem’s elite. In contrast, the simplicity of the Beit Safafa shaft graves may reflect the renunciation of material goods by an ascetic sect—the Essenes.