Amid the dramatically imposing new Greek and Roman galleries at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum—a $220-million project—two small items peek out at the end of the great hall. They caught my eye at the press preview on April 16: bone boxes not vastly different from those found in Jerusalem by the thousands.
Several of the Jerusalem ossuaries have been featured in these pages, especially the one inscribed “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” For about a hundred years before the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 C.E., Jews in the Holy City practiced secondary burial: About a year after initial burial in a loculus, or niche, in a cave, when the flesh had fallen away, the bones were reburied in a limestone box called an ossuary. Many of them are decorated and sometimes inscribed.
After the fall of Jerusalem, we find none from Jerusalem; however, a few from a later period—made of clay—have been discovered in the Galilee, where Jews may have fled from Jerusalem.
Now it turns out that some Jews from the heart of the Roman empire continued to practice secondary burial long after the fall of Jerusalem.
Both of the ossuaries in the Metropolitan exhibit are made of limestone and feature rosettes not dissimilar to the rosettes on Jerusalem ossuaries. The Met ossuaries are elegantly engraved while the Jerusalem exemplars are mostly just scratched on with a stylus. One has a column engraved on it (pictured), an architectural feature also found on some Jerusalem ossuaries.