Bone Boxes

A hoard of Chalcolithic-period ossuaries in a burial cave was exposed by a bulldozer in upper Galilee this past summer. A team of archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority led by Zvi Gal was immediately dispatched to excavate the cave with proper scientific methods. At this writing the excavation, in its third month, has at least another month to go.

“This is the first time a Chalcolithic [mortuary] site has been found in the Galilee,” says Gal.

Made of local clay, the ossuaries were used by the Chalcolithic people to rebury the bones of their dead after the flesh had decayed. Chalcolithic ossuaries look much like a small house, often with a gabled roof. The examples above, discovered in a burial cave at Azor, south of modern Tel Aviv, display the basic characteristics of those discovered in the Galilee.

Gal does not yet know how many ossuaries there are in the cave, since few of them are complete. The burial cave was robbed in antiquity; Gal describes it as a “real mess” with broken ossuaries, strewn bones, smashed pottery and perhaps some stone idols all mixed up together. Only after the pieces are restored will Gal know just what and how much he has found.

There is not even a hint of the religious practices of the Chalcolithic people who reburied their dead in these ossuaries, according to Gal. “It remains a mystery,” he says.