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Tombs: Structure and Design

A tomb is an enclosed space designated for the interment of the body of a deceased person. The tomb was a central element of ancient Jewish burial practices, including during the time of Jesus Christ. The tomb represented a final resting place for the dead and as such was designed in order to reflect the significance of death in Judaism.

Special tombs were prepared in order to bury the deceased. These tombs were excavated from caves and frequently contained a pit of about 5 square feet that was dug into the floor of the room in order to form benches at the side of the tomb. The height of the cave averaged from about three to four feet. However, the construction of the pits increased the height of the tomb to about 6 feet, enabling individuals to stand upright inside the tomb. The entrances to the tomb were square and covered with a blocking stone, bricks or small stones that were held together using mortar or mud.

Two types of tombs were commonly in use during the time of Jesus. The more common type of tomb was the kokim tomb, which featured long narrow niches cut into the chamber of the burial cave at right angles. The other type of tomb popular during the first century was known as the arcosolia tomb, and featured shallow benches that were cut parallel to the wall to the chamber. This type of tomb had an arch-shaped top over the recess. Such tombs were generally reserved for individuals of a higher socio-economic class.

Tombs constructed during the Bronze Age and Iron Age were found in natural caves or hewn chambers. The tombs were characterized by a square or rectangular antechamber that served as a passageway leading into the burial chamber, sometimes referred to as a sepulcher, in which the tomb was laid. When the deceased was buried, his body was placed on one of the niches (kokim) or one of the benches (arcosolia) that were cut into the walls of the tomb. As each new body was placed in the tomb, previous burials were often displaced. When ossuaries became a popular component of ancient Jewish burials in 30 BCE, they were placed in the niche or shelf found inside of the tomb.

In addition, various objects were placed inside of the tombs. Such objects include storage jars, which were placed at the entrances of tombs, as well as cooking pots, which were placed at the head of the coffin. Pottery lamps, pear-shaped bottles, juglets and wooden vessels were placed inside the coffins of women and children. Coins were also placed inside of tombs. The inclusion of these daily objects in the tombs was reflective of the Jewish belief in the afterlife.

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