The Talpiyot Unguentarium

Dr. Joan E. Taylor, Dept. of Theology and Religious Studies, King’s College London

It is easy to feel in this quest to identify the picture of a ‘whale’ a sense that we are all staring at the same ink-blot and seeing different things. The architectural edifice/tower/tomb monument theory does not quite work, because there are little ‘flaps’ on each side, the sides are concave and the circular blob is not explained well. In addition, as James Tabor has said, no one would draw a tomb monument upside down on the side of an ossuary. However, no one would draw a fish in this position on an ossuary either. Instead, viewed the right way up, there is a simpler solution: the picture depicts a small receptacle often used in tombs, called an unguentarium.

Unguentaria were used for perfumed oils, balsam sap and nard (cf. Mk 14:3; Jn 12:3). These perfumes were often employed in tombs when people were buried. In the Gospels, women come to the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea to anoint Jesus’ body (Mk 16:1; Lk 24:1).

To see this image, turn it around so that the blob is at the bottom or look at the ossuary. What comes into view is a certain kind of unguentarium with an outsplayed rim, an ovoid body and a slimmer neck, with a pointed base. This combination of features was often made in colored glass. Also found in these unguentaria are notional handles where the main body bulges out, as in some glass examples you can see in the Israel Museum, for example:




This is shown in the ossuary image. Patterns can be found also on some unguentaria, either by colored glass, paint or incisions. This type of unguentarium could be about 5 cm to 18 cm in height, so it is drawn larger in the ossuary image.

The mysterious blob is also easily explained. A viscous, thick substance like nard could congeal in this way as it dried at the pointed base, but more likely it is displayed as seeping out of this a small opening at the bottom of the pointed tip. Some unguentaria were supposed to be broken at this tip to allow the ointment to come out, perhaps as the example in

Bottle preserving the basic bubble shape

Bottle preserving the basic bubble shape;

Pointed-base unguentaria were often meant to be hung up. Therefore, this imagine seems most likely an unguentarium, not a fish, and not a tomb monument. Its seeping perfume expresses an appropriate wish for a tomb, and illustrates a common item found within.

66 thoughts on “The Talpiyot Unguentarium

  1. Rami, I didn’t post the 4 amphorae. Paul did. My curiosity was just how common such depictions were during the time period that included the lives and death of early Christians. Then if examples emerged I wanted to compare them to the Patio Tomb depiction now under scrutiny by some specialists.

  2. Thanks Mark, I will have the Web guy fix it…definitely 1981 on that tomb as I think all we have published and put up makes clear. 1980 was the “Jesus” tomb. Anything else you notice please pass it on…

  3. In reading Jonah Chapter 2 it states: “To the bottoms of [the] mountains I went down” after “the weeds were wound around my head”. So rather than Jonah being vomitted out of the great fish could this be a depiction of him being swallowed and taken down as the scripture states to the bottoms of the mountains? This would make sense with the big fish pointing down and the little fish swimming above.

    The next verse in Jonah talks about “As for the earth, its bars were upon me for time indefinite” Which there are bars that are seen in the next panel on the ossuary.

    Is there nothing on the back panel or was it not possible to view?

  4. Pingback: Early Christian Tombs Discussion-Continued « Larry Hurtado's Blog

  5. Tim - “Second Temple Jewish ossuaries”, according to Lombatti’s blog, so same time period as the Talpiot ossuary.

  6. John’s comments on the Story Of Jonah are very interesting. Causes me to read again the story and entertain his views.

  7. I have another possible explanation. Maybe it is an amphora with wine in it, so it has a cork stopper which is what I read they used to use for wine containers. Maybe the cork stopper has an unusual fish tail shape to make it easier to hold and pull or wiggle it out of the top of the container. I don’t know how they removed corks before corkscrews were invented.

    Kenneth Greifer

  8. This fish and additional depiction on the same outer wall of the same ossuary is obviously a message that the artist renders as significantly important. The artist added the border and additional fish for a reason. It’s (primitive) style possibly makes it more difficult to analyse. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that the artist is sending us a graphic message that’s meaningful.

    The more I read Chapter 2 of Jonah the more interesting this ossuary becomes. Jonah’s head entangled with seaweed protruding from the mouth of the fish with his stick torso still inside. Then next to the depiction is another depiction of what appears to be an inanimate building structure. Referencing this scene to Chapter 2:4, Jonah speaks of looking ‘Toward thy holy temple.’ In verse 5 he mentions weeds wrapped about his head. In verse 6 he speaks of going down to the bottoms of the mountains and mentions the ‘earth with her bars.’ In verse 7 he says “and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple,” again referencing a temple. The artist is telling us a story. And fully expects us to understand it. Possibly some of the best clues are in the story itself.

  9. I’ve very much enjoyed following the discourse here. Although I’m a layman, doesn’t anyone else view the “submerged” tail/fish (on the right side of the “Jonah” ossuary) as simply half a krater, amphora or unguentarium that the artist didn’t finish? On the 1981 photo of the side of the ossuary one can (at least my untrained eye) plainly see what appears to be a handle on the left lip/rim of the vessel (if, indeed, the carving is some sort of container), which arcs up slightly, then down to the body of the vessel, much like the handle one would expect on a krater or amphora. This is especially apparent in photos 10 of 13 & 11 of 13 on the jesusdiscovery website (under photos & graphics/findings photos & graphics), which can be enlarged by clicking on them to easily see the outline of the handle to which I’m referring. The outline of the handle to is faint, but fairly apparent, especially at the left rim moving slighltly up and to the left as well as the portion of the handle that would be connected to the body, which appears to rise up from the left body toward the left at about a 45 degree angle. There also appears to be a similar, but fainter handle on the right side rising up from the body in a fashion symmetrical to the “handle” on the left, although I don’t see a similar stem on the right rim.

    In addition, instead of being a picture of a submerged fish, might the entire right side carving simply be unfinished? For example, not only is the vessel half-drawn, the border carving also appears to stop at around the same level as the bottom of the fish/vessel. Could the artist have simply stopped-perhaps started on the side first, the chose to draw the more elaborate version on the front?

    Furthermore, if one closely examines photo 5 of 13 (the “Fish in the margins” detail photo)-which also captures the upper left “tail” portion of the front carving everyone has focused on (and again enlarged by clickiing on it) you can see one and possibly two long lines that, while they may be deep, somewhat parallel scratches, look strikingly similar to the beginnings of the handle depicted in photo 5. It seems more than coincidence that such a mark would find itself on the drawings of both left rims.

  10. Thanks, Don, for this great observation. I’ve taken the liberty of blogging about it at . I’ve acknowledged you in the post.

  11. Don, thanks for your comments. This is a difficult one to figure out as, unfortunately, all we have to go on is the 1981 photo. When we zoomed in and tried lighten and darken the the lines (as in the close up on the web site) we did see the sharply angled marking on the left side but it does not appear to be attached or part of the image. On the right side there is a much more widened mark, almost like a curve. We were not able to tell if these were deliberate markings or scratches. The image, whatever, it is, seems to be unfinished, much like the scratched in rosette on the MARA rosette, but it seemed clear to us that the person doing this wanted to portray only “half” of something, even though he/she began at the top of the ossuary (you can see the border if you zoom in) and there is plenty of room to complete an image-if it is a amphora. After three rows of the grid pattern you have the blank space. That led us to the possibility that it was more likely a half-fish, intended to indicate its diving into the water, but that interpretation was obviously connected to what we consider to be a clear Jonah/fish image on the front, with the “bars” or entrance motif on the other end.

  12. Wow, this may turn out to be the worlds biggest rorshach test. Without getting into details as to which lines mean what, I think all we can say is that there are lines, scratches, abrasions, holes, etc all over the place, that would come and go under various lighting conditions, which may or may not be purposeful and have meaning. I personally don’t see handles, but I can see how others might. I am still going with the half-fish. I just don’t think we are going to get very far if the debate gets bogged down in all of these marks. So, I think we are better served by 1) trying to focus on the big picture where we can and 2) suggest that we would all be best served by inducing the local religious authorities to let us in the tombs for high quality, well controlled (e.g. RTI) photography.

    What is the big picture? We have extraordinary images on an extraordinary ossuary in an extraordinary tomb, next to another extraordinary tomb. It could all be chance or part of a larger story. I personally am going with the latter, even if all of the details aren’t clear.

  13. Happy to have contributed to the dialogue on this remarkable find. I agree with Jerry on the “rershach test.” A hurdle for interpreting any image, let alone one from an old photo, is to recognize one’s own biases and inclinatiosns. I’ll let the experts duke out the contextual interpretation.

    I also agree with James that the side image seems unfinished, itself remarkable to me, given the large number of bones in the ossuary (so presumably used over a somehwat longer period) and the care with which the front and other side were decorated (albeit by an untrained hand-a family member as James points out in his article-and not an artisan).

    It would be interesting to know the relative frequency of other ossuraries used for multiple persons, whether any were similarly highly, yet crudely decorated, and their locations/status within their respective tombs.

  14. I was considering the evidence put forth by Dr. Tabor and others who have opposed the idea and no one seems to be asking the right questions. First of all only 2 of 7 ossuaries have “Christian” imagery on them, yet it is described as a “Christian Tomb”. Isn’t it conceivable that only 2 members of this family were Judeo-Christian?I can accept their theory as plausible if the tomb itself showed Christian themes or more of the ossuaries had Christian symbols on them. Compared to the evidence found at the Dominus Flevit, the “patio tomb has less striking correlations to names associated with the Jesus movement. The Talpiot tomb has no “Christian” iconography or symbols yet it was supposedly used repeatedly by the earliest followers to bury members of the Jesus Family. Has any information about the Greek inscription on the tomb wall ever been discussed by Tabor or Jacobbvici? It’s existence is mentioned briefly on the documentary but never discussed again.
    My other problem with the theory is that some of the major early followers of Jesus are buried elsewhere. James the brother and 1st leader after Jesus is not in the Tomb (10th ossuary not missing according to Gibson) and Simon of Kleopas cousin or half/brother of Jesus are not featured in the tomb even though they are both leaders of the movement and known to have died in Jerusalem according to Josephus and Eusebius. Others who are notable by their absence but appear elsewhere (Dominus Flevit) are Mary, Martha and Lazarus and Simon son of Jonah (Peter) who are all close friends of Jesus and should be featured in the “Patio Tomb” if we expect that his closest followers would want to be as close to Jesus as possible. Maybe if more names of gospel personalities were associated with the “patio tomb” it could be rightly described as an early “Christian” burial. Otherwise I can only concede that 2 members of this family may have believed in or followed Jesus.

  15. I recall that in Hachlili’s book Jewish Funerary Customs, she has a few pages on deliberately unfinished ossuaries. I don’t have the book to hand (I’d have to go to the library), but if anyone does they might like to check whether it’s relevant to the “half-fish.” I can’t really recall what she says, so it might not be relevant at all, but might be enlightening.

  16. b”h

    Possible alternative to unguentaria?

    After looking at the image of the ossuary’s side,

    the first thought that came to me was that the vessel is a wide-mouthed “mizrak” used in the temple to first catch sacrifical blood, and then to dash it on the altar (Numbers 7 mentions them). Here is a modern reproduction of a large mizrak by the Temple Institute.

    Mizrak’s are said to have been made so that they cannot be set down, but rather must be held and continually agitated to keep the blood from coagulating. That might explain the ball at the bottom of the ossuary image.

    I have not read any interpretation of the rectangular object beside the vessel in associated blogs, but it reminded me of the altar, on which the blood would be dashed. So a mizrak and the altar perhaps?

    The “half-fish” object might be a meal offering vessel, similar to the modern reproduction:

    If so, perhaps the ossuary was of a cohen involved in Temple activities?

    Best wishes

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