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May 17, 1996 - Image 110

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1996-05-17

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or more than 1,000 years the bones,
the gold earrings, the bits of glass
lay hidden in the deep, dark womb
of the earth.
Then progress rolled in — literally, in
the form of heavy machinery.
In 1989, workers were constructing a
road about half a mile outside the Old City
of Jerusalem when, while digging deep into
the ground, they chanced to see the top of
a door, elegant and fine. An archaeologist
was called in, and then another to confirm
the findings.
What the men quickly realized they were
seeing were burial sites that had served
Jews, Romans and Christians in the first
centuries of the Common Era. It was a dark
place, of course, but still oddly fresh with
color in some spots, with red — not at all
faded — lined designs on the wall. There
were ossuaries (stone tombs for bones), jew-
elry, glass and lamps.
Artifacts from the discovery will make
their international premiere Sunday, May
19, at the Janice Charach Epstein Muse-
um/Gallery at the Jewish Community Cen-
ter in West Bloomfield. The exhibit, which
runs through June 27, is sponsored by
Guardian Industries Corp. and Phoeni-
cia America-Israel (Flat Glass) Ltd. and is
coordinated by the Jewish Federation's
Partnership 2000. There is no charge.
The tombs were found in an area known
as the Akeldama, or Field of Blood. It takes
its name from a story in the New Testa-
ment in which Judas, suddenly repentant,










throws aside the "blood money" he received
for turning Jesus over to Pilate. Suppos-
edly, the area into which Judas tossed the
silver coins became a burial field.
Records from the second and third cen-
tury CE mention the Akeldama, and all of
the known tombs there eventually were
looted, leaving behind only empty cham-
That is, until the 1989 discovery.
Archaeologist Gideon Avni, of Israel's
Antiquities Authority, was one of the first
to enter the tombs. Flashlight in hand, oxy-
gen mask strapped over his mouth, he
climbed through the tiny openings. Except
for a few shattered bits of glass and broken
pottery, the cave-like structure remained
pristine, with gold jewelry scattered
throughout. Clearly, it had never been
plundered and likely never even entered
since the time of the last burial.
Mr. Avni believes the burial ground,
which features three caves, was built by
Jews who used it until 70 CE when the Ro-
mans conquered Jerusalem. The Romans
then began placing their
dead in the same spot,
followed by the Chris- Some of the items
recovered from the
tians who buried monks
there during the fifth and
sixth centuries.
How do they know?
Inside the
It's all a matter of arti- underground -tombs,
workers unravel
facts. Among the items
mysteries of the
discovered within: a coin
from 67 CE, clay lamps

.:4,4, :z a. 4abk*k

that bear the Christian cross,
ashes of Roman soldiers who
practiced cremation.
Archaeologists surmise the
tombs were not for just anyone.
Originally, they likely were a
part of a Jewish burial area for
the wealthy, Mr. Avni says.
The ossuaries in no way re-
semble the humble, plain cas-
kets advocated by Halachah
(Jewish law) today. Instead, they
are heavily decorated with geo-
metric designs, often created by
master artisans and craftsmen
(who even signed their work).
The use of an ossuary was,
however, typical for the time. It


was described in the Talmud and wai -com-
mon practice until the destruction of the
Second Temple. Initially, bodies were
placed in arched niches cut into the cave
walls. The niches were then dosed, and one
year later survivors returned to place the
bones into a small (between 11/2 and 2 112
feet long by 1 foot wide and 2 feet tall) lime-
stone container. Sometimes, the final re-
mains of an entire family would be reunited
in death in a single ossuary.
Some of the caves bear family names,
like Ariston ofApamea (in Syria). Mr. Avni
believes this may be the same Ariston fam-
ily mentioned in the Mishnah in Tractate
Hallah 4:11: "Ariston brought his first fruits
from Apamea and they accepted them from

An unforgettable exhibit makes its world
premiere in Michigan.



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