Biblical Archaeology Review 17:3, May/June 1991

Glossary: Ossuary

By Neil Asher Silberman

Biblical Archaeology Review

A Box for Bones

Ossuary (plural, ossuaries) refers to a special container for the collection of human bones, usually connected with highly formalized burial rites. In contrast to simple coffins or the more elaborate stone sarcophagi in which the body of the deceased was placed soon after death, ossuaries commonly served as a final depository for human bones only after an initial period of burial or exposure, during which the flesh of the body decayed. Although the term is sometimes applied by archaeologists in the Americas to mounds or chambers used for communal burials, “ossuary” in the archaeology of Israel refers to specific types of enclosed bone containers used during two widely separated archaeological periods: the Chalcolithic (c. 4500–3200 B.C.) and the Herodian (c. 30 B.C.–70 A.D.).

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