Bulldozers were hacking away at the rocky soil, widening a narrow road in the southeastern corner of Jerusalem in 1989, when they unearthed two small, square doors. Behind them lay history untouched for 1,500 years.
What road workers had uncovered were the burial chambers of two wealthy Jewish families, dating back to the 1st century BC. The tombs, lamps, bottles, carvings and skeletal remains were quickly collected by the Israel Antiquities Authority, the office in charge of preserving all such archeological finds.
Now, some of those items can tell their stories--of Diaspora Jews returning to Jerusalem, of the Roman conquest--to people 7,000 miles and 2,000 years away. The traveling exhibit, titled “Akeldama: In the Shadow of God’s Mountain,” is at the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills through April 13.
Akeldama is the region where two valleys meet--the Kidron and the Hinnom--south of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Translated roughly from the Hebrew, Akeldama means field (akel) of blood (dama) or field of tears (dema).
According to Christian tradition, this is the land that was purchased with the 30 pieces of silver that Judas Iscariot was given for turning Jesus over to the Roman Soldiers.
Both valleys were known to contain dozens of tombs, most carved out of the rocky walls. Many of them were explored and documented by scholars in the 1800s, but by the 20th century most had been excavated or plundered.
Curator Hava Katz said archeologists knew this discovery dated back to the 1st century BC because of a specific method of burial. Bodies were first placed in a kokh--a deep, narrow cave--or on an arcosolium--a wide arched shelf. After about one year the bones of the dead were collected and put into an ossuary, a large, usually lidded stone box. Though this method was only in practice among Jews for 200 years, it seems to have some connection to contemporary customs in which mourners return to the burial site after a year to erect a headstone.
The Akeldama tombs apparently belonged to two Jewish families from northern Syria named Eros and Ariston. The site continued to be used for hundreds of years after the Roman conquest, said Katz, who came from Israel to supervise the exhibit installation.
Archeologists found evidence of cremation--a practice prohibited by Jewish law--so they suspect these are the remains of Roman soldiers. Skeletons laid out on the floor surrounded by wood shards indicated that Christians interred their dead there as well in the early Byzantine period (AD 400-500), but in coffins.
To Katz, almost as remarkable as the condition of the tomb itself is the fact that neither the Christians nor the Romans disturbed the Jewish remains. “In the same chamber, they would put the old bones aside, and then bury theirs,” she said. “We’re talking about another religion, another culture--and yet they didn’t disturb it.”
Guest scholar Steven Fine, who spoke at the exhibit’s opening last week, characterized the fact that the Romans and Christians didn’t disturb the ossuaries as “a sign of considerable disinterest.” Of course they used whatever space was available, he said. “Why not?”
Space was likely always at a premium in this religious and cultural center. “Jerusalem in the 1st century was a rather important place,” said Fine, an assistant professor of Rabbinic literature and history at Baltimore Hebrew University. “Roman authors were saying it was the most important city in the East. Authors in Jerusalem were saying it was the most beautiful city you’ve ever seen.”
The Second Temple--rebuilt about 70 years after Solomon’s Temple was destroyed during the Babylonian conquest in 586 BC--attracted Jewish pilgrims from all across the Greco-Roman world. While there was a uniformity to the religious behavior of the Jews at this time, different groups came to the city with distinctive interpretations of the Torah, Fine said. Jerusalem became, by the 1st century BC, an incredible melting pot of Jews returning from all over the Middle East and North Africa.
This is reflected in the Akeldama tombs. “There’s lots of money, lots of stone carving, because of the influx of capital under Herod,” Fine said. The ornate stone chambers--some rooms were carved to look as if they had wooden doors and paneling--reflect the wealth of the families entombed there.
Most ossuaries found throughout the region--the Israeli Antiquities Authority has collected about 1,000 of them--contained the remains of more than one person, often an adult and children. But the limestone boxes at Akeldama tended to have a single name inscribed on them, in Greek or Hebrew. The names, too, reflect the diversity of people emigrating to Jerusalem at the time: Greek, Syrian and Egyptian in origin.
For Christian scholars, the tombs reveal what burial practices were like at the time of Christ. Fine read from Mark 15, in which Joseph of Armiathea retrieves Jesus’ body for burial: “And he bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud, and laid him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock; and he rolled a stone against the door of the tomb.” John 19 describes the burial place as a new tomb, where no one ever had been laid.
“This is exactly the time we’re talking about here,” he said.
Curator Katz said it’s rare for such archeological finds to go on public display so quickly. “It’s a small subject and we cover all of it,” she said. “One burial place was excavated in less than a week, and then a book was made, and then we did the exhibit.”
Displaying the discoveries of the Akeldama tombs illuminates life in Jerusalem, or, as Fine put it, turns the rocks back into people.
“I can’t see Jesus walking down the street, but I know what the street looked like,” Fine said. “This is one more piece for that set.”
“Akeldama: In the Shadow of God’s Mountain” at Finegood Art Gallery of Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. Free. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun., 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Thur., and 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Fri., through April 13. Call (818) 587-3218.