Tomb Tracking: A New Burial Survey of Roman Galilee (1st-6th cent. CE)

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today, ASOR
Tags: Ancient Near East Today, ANET, Anthropology, Archaeology, ASOR, Burial, Christian, Jessica Dello Russo, Mailia, Near East, Roman Galilee, tomb
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By: Jessica Dello Russo

Eldad Keynan, a native of Israel’s Galilee region, finishes a lunch of hummus and pita on the outskirts of the Christian town of Mailia, and engages in the customary post-prandial coffee with none other than the restaurant owner, an agile widow in her mid-seventies who keeps a baby stroller below the counter and faded posters of Italian soccer stars on her eatery’s inner walls. Conversing in Modern Hebrew, the lingua franca of this multi-cultural region of Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Druze, they name rural localities that only homegrown Galileans can visualize without a map. After about ten minutes of rapid discussion, during which time I study the triumphal scenes of the 2006 World Cup, the mid-afternoon traffic outside the window, and a small group of townsfolk who enter without any immediate need of being served, Keynan turns to me and signals, with satisfaction, another victory: “she has told me of a place near here where tombs are found.”

This fits the pattern of many of our visits to Northeast Galilee, where open and friendly contact with area residents provides oral testimonies of the underground burials that we seek. A landowner in Mailia permits us to cross his pasture and climb down a flight of stairs into a finely-carved and as-yet undocumented rock-cut tomb: some children in Shefaram peer at us curiously over a concrete wall that separates their house from a limestone outcropping where three U-shaped doors lead into small burial chambers with arched or rectangular-shaped recesses only just visible above water-soaked debris. Yet witnesses to these occasions are rare, if one does not count livestock and tribes of hyrax. Most often, a tomb trek leads us across remote highways, rocky fields, and, of course, down prominent hills and cliffs to where the man-made caverns are most likely to be found.

Truth be told, any traces of habitation can signal the presence of tombs, and a great number of those that survive in today’s Israel that date from the Roman and Byzantine eras are in square or rectangular chambers excavated in the rock at or near ground level, frequently in a series or in clusters that demarcate one or more necropoleis or “cities of the dead” encircling a town. Monuments in these graveyards were no doubt well kept by the families who first purchased the land and commissioned the tomb construction, a project of days if not weeks, and certainly built to last, for a family or clan could use the same site for generations, perhaps even for a century or more, until demographic changes might bring in a new clientele and some structural transformations. A cross etched into a doorway, the spread of tombs across the upper portions of a wall, or the connection below ground of one or more tomb chambers that had originally been planned separately: these can all be interpreted as evidence of how ancient Galilean burial practices needed to fit the exigencies of later times.

It is the suggestion of changes to the funerary customs of the Galileans in Late Antiquity that most excites Keynan, a doctoral candidate in Jewish History at the Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv: not only does he pay attention to where a tomb is located, and which of its features might illustrate a chronological relationship to other monuments in the site, but he also considers the functionality of the space, and how the provisions made by individual owners to plan, excavate, decorate and ultimately activate their tombs seem to have departed at times from the distinctly Jewish funerary practices of the Second Temple period in order to incorporate more contemporary and “Roman” burial techniques and materials. Keynan subscribes to the theory that there was no monopoly on being “Jewish” in Late Antique Galilee (and the region then, like now, was home not only to Jews): a range of Jews, including Judeo-Christians, could have shared the same territories and traditions. In consequence and by necessity, all would have contributed to the wealth of tombs that this area still holds.

This aspect of Keynan’s quest relates strongly to the cultural climate of the Galilee of today. At a time of increased tension between Israeli Arabs and Jews in many parts of the country, Keynan finds himself chatting over coffee with the Christian and Muslim customers of a Muslim Israeli’s store, talking shop until the owner interjects with a declaration: “We are all Jews” for a language, region, and – need it be said – crudity of adult male humor unite this group of men. Still, what the shopkeeper is saying is no joke, however lively the banter. Galileans of different religious traditions unite behind a strong attachment to the land, their land, and a keen awareness of its ancient organization and use.

Next to the tomb-shrine of the fourth century CE Rabbi Yehoshua of Sakhnin is a modern Muslim cemetery. On the outskirts of Giskala is a new enclosure of Christian mausoleums, commemorating the deceased in Arabic and Syriac, an ancient Semitic language in grave danger of extinction – pun intended – were it not for the determined efforts of some local activists to teach it to younger generations. There are no visible restrictions on a Jew like Keynan on visiting the non-Jewish sites, which he treats with dignity and respect. Thus, not only the tomb doors, but also the doors to modern Muslim and Christian houses are opened, and the intimate concerns of these settlements of many millennia are perpetuated during a routine consumption of coffee and cigarettes.

Yet the overlapping of ancient and modern cultures in Israel does not always create a co-existence of a peaceful fashion. Many of the ancient tombs we saw had been badly damaged by looters or from their transformation into cisterns, storage bunkers, animal pens, or even camping grounds. The overt signs of digging, like the picks and hammers left in a trench, are unfortunate reminders that everyone in the area seems to know someone who got rich off the discovery of gold and silver in an illicit dig, certainly a legend when it comes to the exploration of tombs, that contain a wealth of information for archaeologists but next to nothing in the way of valuables that will appeal to the collector (that said, I could have stocked a museum several times over with the small finds from clandestine digs that were offered to me “below the counter” at a price).

A policy chasm between the Israeli Antiquities Authority in Jerusalem and landowners in the Galilee has left many ancient monuments such as tombs in oblivion, since private building developers are unwilling to finance are they are required to by law the government’s salvage excavations in a site. For this reason, property owners denied us access to some undocumented tombs, and it is not only in the Galilee that Israelis await a pragmatic solution to this conundrum on the part of the incoming head of the IAA.
I not only support Keynan’s initiative as a friend, but also as a colleague in the field who is curious to see how far Semitic burial traditions could have traveled with Jews and Christians to other lands ruled by Rome. The last comprehensive survey of Galilean rock-cut tombs was carried out by archaeologist Zeev Weiss in the mid-1980’s, and since then, both new research and new construction work have brought dozens of more tombs to light. Keynan’s approach from the trenches, so to speak, involves interfaith dialogue as well as innovative ways to interpret the material finds, and serves as a model of how scholars of all nationalities and cultural formations have much to learn from each other in the process of interpreting the ancient, anonymous, but highly suggestive Galilean tombs.

Jessica Dello Russo is the Executive Director of the International Catacomb Society and a Ph.D. candidate at the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology in Rome. Eldad Keynan can be contacted at

For Further Reading

Mordechai Aviam, “Burial Customs in Judea and Galilee in the Late Second Temple Period: An Important Component in the Discussion about “Jesus’ Family Tomb,” The Tomb of Jesus and His Family? Exploring Ancient Jewish Tombs Near Jerusalem’s Walls, ed. James H. Charlesworth, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2013

Mordechai Aviam, Aviam, Mordechai, ed. Jews, Pagans and Christians in the Galilee: 25 Years of Archaeological Excavations and Surveys – Hellenistic to Byzantine Periods. Rochester, New York: University of Rochester Press, 2004

Rachel Hachlili, Jewish Funerary Customs, Practices And Rites In The Second Temple Period, Brill, Leiden-Boston-Köln, 2005

Eldad Keynan, “A Different Kind of Tomb in Lower Galilee,” The Bible and Interpretation (October, 2010)

Eldad Keynan, “Jewish Burials,” The Bible and Interpretation (October 2010):

James McGrath, “Among the Tombs,” Exploring the Matrix (June 10, 2014):


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