Bones, Burials, and Biblical History: The Discovery of Ancient Tombs -- By: John J. Davis

Journal: Bible and Spade (Second Run)
Volume: BSPADE 15:1 (Winter 2002)
Article: Bones, Burials, and Biblical History: The Discovery of Ancient Tombs
Author: John J. Davis


Bones, Burials, and Biblical History:
The Discovery of Ancient Tombs

Second of Three Parts

John J. Davis

The excavation of burials, once they are located, can be the fulfillment of archaeologists’ dreams, but locating ancient burials is, more often than not, their worst nightmare.

Changes in surface topography due to soil erosion, earthquake activity, agricultural pursuits, and modern building can make tomb exploration extremely difficult. Rock-cut tomb entrances that were mere inches below the surface may now be many feet underneath. Also, complicating the task of the archaeologist is the practice of tomb robbery in both ancient and modern times. In Jordan and in the West Bank, the practice is widespread and highly destructive.

Too Late — Robbed out Roman tombs at Abila.

Because of the artifact richness of some burials, tombs became the targets of robbers from the most ancient of times. The Egyptians had two lines of defense against the violation of its tombs: first, they designed tombs that made entry difficult; and second, they utilized magical protection by means of special inscriptions containing spells and curses (Spencer 1982:76–77, 109).

These defenses did not work, however. Even the pyramids were robbed at an early date. An inscription from the First Intermediate Period (ca. 2200 BC-2050 BC) records the following:

Behold now, something has been done which never happened for a long time; the king has been taken away by poor men. Behold, he who was buried as a (divine) falcon is (now) on a (mere) bier; what the pyramid hid has become empty (Wilson 1951:109).

The evidence points to the fact that many ordinary cemeteries in Egypt were plundered soon after the time of interment (Spencer 1982:77). Archaeological evidence reveals that family tombs in Palestine from the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine Periods used by many generations also fell victim to early pillaging.

The Romans were sensitive to the violation of a burial because. .. any act that involved disturbance of the actual burial, spelt, it was believed, distress for the soul when it visited or dwelt in its body’s resting place. Violatio sepulcri (grave violation) was, indeed a criminal offense (Toynbee 1971:76).

Attempts were made in Palestine to curb the stripping of tombs of their goods. A Greek inscription dated between 50 BC to AD 50 was discovered in Nazareth and contained the following lines:

Ordinance of Caesar. It is my pleasure that graves and tombs remained undisturbed in perpetuity for those who have made them for the cult of their an...

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