Ossuaries were commonly used in Jewish burials in and around Jerusalem from about 30 B.C. to A.D. 70, a hundred-year period surrounding the lifetime of Jesus. They regularly turn up through foiled tomb robberies, or accidentally as a result of construction projects. When a tomb has been so violated the archaeologists are called in on an emergency, or rescue, basis to record what they can. The artifacts, including the ossuaries, are catalogued and stored, and the bones are promptly turned over to the Orthodox Jewish community for reburial.
Thousands of ossuaries have been found in Israel, especially in the rock-hewn tombs outside Jerusalem. But finding a skeleton still laid out in a loculus and wrapped in its burial shroud was a first. For some reason the family of the deceased had not returned after the primary burial to place their loved one more permanently in an ossuary.
Organic materials, such as cloth, normally could not survive outside a desert area, and with Jerusalem in the mountains, with its damp winters and rainfall, such a find seemed unbelievable. The tomb had probably been undisturbed since the 1st century A.D. Most of the tombs in this area of Akeldama dated to the time of Jesus, and only a few of them had been opened or robbed over the centuries. We could see no evidence to think this one was any different from the others. However, Gibson did allow the possibility that maybe this particular skeleton with the burial shroud had been placed there from a later period -- perhaps from the Crusades -- thus accounting for its preservation. There are cases where ancient tombs were reused in later periods. But Gibson was of the view that we might well have stumbled across the only example of a 1st-century burial shroud ever found. Only carbon-14 testing of the fabric could tell us for certain. The whole scene reminded me of the initial examination of the Dead Sea Scrolls. At that time scholars found it hard to believe they could have survived for two thousand years. The Scrolls had been preserved in the dry heat of the Judean desert, but we were in the mountains of Jerusalem where the winter weather is rainy and damp. So we were quite prepared to accept a late medieval or Crusades date for the fabric.
The Israelis arrived with supervisor Boaz Zissu of the Israel Antiquities Authority. We spent the rest of the night removing and labeling every bit of the fragile remaining cloth. Boaz told us that thieves had initially opened this very tomb in 1998 but that he and Amir Ganor, who is in charge of protecting tombs in the area, had been able to block it back up and prevent its total looting.4 No one at that time had noticed the shrouded skeletal remains in the lower chamber.
Since my students were trained in archaeology they were allowed to participate. Gibson spent several hours bent over on his hands and knees, squeezed into the narrow loculus. The students photographed, labeled, and recorded each stage of the retrieval. We finished close to daybreak and our carefully packaged cargo was taken to the laboratory of the Israel Antiquities Authority at the Rockefeller Museum, just north of the Old City.