Tiberias Municipality contractors were baffled, as all the concrete they poured into the 20-meter (65 feet) deep foundation holes they had drilled before building a new neighborhood disappeared.
Suddenly, as a mechanical digger exposed a cave entrance, they found their missing concrete — and a unique 2,000-year-old burial cave.
The three-room cave includes a decorated entry way and two burial chambers. The entry, slightly damaged by the digger, still shows remains of painted walls, with glimpses of red, yellow, and white still visible to the naked eye, said Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Yair Amitsur.
According to Amitsur, “The burial cave is a fascinating discovery since it is an almost unique find in this area.”
In conversation with The Times of Israel, Antiquities Inspector of Tiberias and Eastern Lower Galilee Amitsur said that the burial complex is assumed to be a family plot.
Initial decipherment of the Greek inscriptions found on the small ossuaries and in the chamber indicate that a father and son were interred there. The names do not indicate the religion or background of those buried there, since even the Jewish elite used Greek names, including, for example, the second century BCE Hasmonean leader Yohanan Hyrcanus.
“The high-quality rock-hewing, the complexity of the cave, the decorations, and the Greek inscriptions point to the cave belonging to a wealthy family, who lived in the area in the Roman period,” he said.
The ossuaries and niches for laying the corpses are clues in dating the cave, he said. From the first century BCE until circa second century CE, burial practices included laying out the dead in niches, and then returning a year later to collect the bones and place them in small ceramic coffins or ossuaries. This, said Amitsur, is the genesis of the Jewish practice to visit a grave a year after interment.
After this time, a body was laid in a niche in a sarcophagus and left in place.
It is very unusual to find burial caves in this region, said Amitsur, adding that one can find them in other parts of the country, such as Beit Shearim and in the Jerusalem area. He knows of only one other in the area.
According to an IAA release, the cave was hewn from rock, and, in addition to its entrance hall, had one large central room with several burial niches, decorated ceramic and stone ossuaries, as well as a small inner chamber (where the concrete was discovered). Carved stone doors once sealed the entrance of each room. The IAA assumes the cave was probably robbed in antiquity.
Tiberias was named in honor of the Roman Emperor Tiberius and founded in 18 CE by the son of Herod the Great, Herod Antipas. According to the IAA release, it became a large city and served as the capital of the Galilee. “In the Roman and Byzantine periods, several smaller villages grew up on the outskirts of the city, including Beit Maon, the home of Resh Lakish, Kofra, Be’er Meziga, and others.”
The cave is undergoing more testing and Mayor of Tiberias Yossi Ben David promised that the new neighborhood’s plan will be adjusted to protect and conserve it.