As we were making our way back to our cars, Jeff Poplin, one of my students, pointed down the hillside below where we had parked. The entrance to a freshly opened tomb was visible in the setting sunlight. Moist soil was piled about the entrance and we could see fragments of broken ossuaries scattered all about. These were the stone bone boxes that Jews of the 1st century used to hold the bones of the deceased. As we approached closer the rectangular entrance to the tomb was clearly exposed, measuring about a square meter. We stuck our heads inside. It was pitch dark, but the damp musty smell of such a space, sealed from outside air for thousands of years, filled our nostrils. It is not an unpleasant smell, but one like no other, and something one never forgets.
Tomb robberies in this area are relatively rare -- perhaps two or three occur over the span of a decade. The Israelis have a special armed unit responsible for protecting antiquities, and the desecrating of an ancient tomb is a serious crime. Judging from the broken ossuaries at the entrance and the fresh soil piled around, the tomb in front of us had most likely just been robbed the night before.
Gibson alerted the Israeli authorities on his cell phone and with their permission he, his assistant Rafi Lewis, and a couple of my students went inside to survey the damage while the authorities were on their way. I waited outside with the others, standing watch. It was rapidly growing dark. The tomb had more than one chamber or level. The group inside disappeared and after a while we could not hear them anymore. The Israelis took much longer to arrive than we expected. The minutes ticked by. After about twenty minutes, and hearing and seeing nothing, those of us outside began to wonder if we should go in and find the others.
Suddenly we heard the excited shouting of Lee Hutchinson, another of my students, muffled at first, then more distinct, as he scrambled toward the upper chamber. He was yelling, "Dr. Tabor! Dr. Tabor! Dr. Gibson has found something very important!" He was so excited he could hardly talk. With his head sticking out of the entrance and his body still inside, he told us that the tomb had three chambers or levels, and in the lowest chamber, in a burial niche carved into the wall, there were the remains of a skeleton with portions of its cloth burial shroud still intact.
Gibson eventually surfaced and explained to us the remarkable implications of this discovery. Jewish burial at the time of Jesus was carried out in two distinct stages -- a primary and a secondary "burial." First the body was washed and anointed with oils and spices and wrapped in a burial shroud. It was then placed on a stone shelf or in a niche known as a loculus carved into the bedrock wall of the tomb. The body was allowed to decompose and desiccate for as long as a year. When mostly bones were left, the remains were gathered and placed into an ossuary or "bone box" usually carved from limestone.3 Often the name of the deceased was carved or scratched on the side into the stone. Some ossuaries hold the bones of more than one individual, and some are inscribed with more than one name. These rectangular lidded boxes vary in size but typically they are 20 by 10 by 12 inches, long enough for the femur or thigh bone, and wide enough to hold the skull.