Why were the bones of these Chalcolithic people placed in ossuaries instead of simply buried? Ever since the first Chalcolithic ossuaries were discovered by Eleazar Sukenik in 1935, the meaning of these strange burial boxes has provided fertile ground for scholarly speculation. The prevailing scholarly opinion has been that the Chalcolithic people wished to bury their dead in house-shaped models. This, it was said, perpetuated the Neolithic practice of burying the deceased under the floors of houses. The idea behind this is perhaps similar to the beliefs of some African tribes, who “bring home” their dead chiefs and bury them in the village compound. There are no Chalcolithic dwellings that look at all like the ossuaries, however. So some scholars suggest that such homes must have been built of perishable materials. Others suggest that the four little legs found on some ossuaries represent the stilts of houses built in marshy areas like the Sharon plain—another far-fetched idea.

Another avenue will be more productive: At Byblos, on the Mediterranean coast of northern Lebanon, French archaeologist Maurice Dunand recovered more than 1,200 Chalcolithic storage jars that had also been used for burials.1 Dunand proposed that the people of the Chalcolithic attempted to include the dead among the living and that there was a symbolic connection between the bones of the deceased and the grain that was typically stored in these jars. (Remember the little copper vessels from the Cave of the Treasure, described in the accompanying article, shaped like Chalcolithic pithoi where grain was stored.)

A few years ago Harvard professor Ofer Bar-Yosef and Eitan Ayalon of the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv suggested that the Chalcolithic ossuaries should be viewed as symbolic granaries. This idea makes sense. If storage jars were used for burials, then ossuaries ought to be viewed as symbolic storage facilities, too. We would not expect two different burial concepts to be practiced by one people. What was true for burials in storage jars (as at Byblos and in the Cave of the Treasure, where the miniature copper vessels may have been regarded as burial jars) must also be true of ossuaries.

Bar-Yosef and Ayalon note that in various places in Africa, Europe and the Middle East, structures that look similar to the Chalcolithic ossuaries serve as granaries for home and family consumption. They are rectangular or round, many are placed on legs and their square openings are elevated to keep out rodents. Large square-shaped openings are typical and most have doors that are closed with a simple square board. These features look strikingly similar to the openings of Chalcolithic ossuaries. If the ossuaries were not modeled after unknown houses, they must have been modeled after granaries.

The Chalcolithic people did not intend to “bring home” the dead when they deposited the bones in granaries. The concept behind Chalcolithic ossilegium is clear and simple. Similar to the dry and seemingly dead grain stored in granaries that revives and comes back to life when sown, so is the wish to see the bones in the “granaries” revived and resurrected. Consequently, the ossuaries were seen as magic boxes that had the power to revive, resurrect and bring back to life the dry bones deposited within them. If it works with dry grain in granaries, why not with dry bones in boxes and storage jars that look like household granaries?

Evidently, the Chalcolithic netherworld was imagined as a granary in which the souls and bodies of the dead resided and, like grain, eventually came back to life. This idea is very old and lingered with the people of the Near East for a long time. Although alive, grain looks lifeless, and when ground, its flour appears as white and as lifeless as a dry bone.

The analogy of the revival of dead grain with human bones finds two interesting and remote echoes. One is found in a stone etching from the Early Bronze Age site of Arad in the Negev where a man with hair of grain is depicted lying down. Next to him is drawn a man standing up—a living human.2

The second example is millennia later—in the Gospel of John. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).—Rami Arav