Graves from the Roman period in Arbel brook


We are 100 meters from the ancient synagogue in Arbel on our way down towards the Arbel brook, and one of the things we will see in few minutes, are ancient graves.

A topic I will not address today – so since the 11th century, traditions have started to appear around the graves of Jacob children. Jacob regarded as a patriarch of the Israelites, and the graves here relate to Reuben, Shimon, Levi and Dina. In addition, traditions regarding the grave of Sheth son of Adam and Eve also appeared. I will not refer to these traditions or graves that are within a radius of 100 meters around us.

As for our location – we are adjacent to the ancient synagogue of Arbel from two thousand years ago, walking towards the Arbel brook, which its water flow between the cliffs of mount Arbel and the cliffs of Mount Nitai, between the ancient villages of Arbel on the south side of the brook and the ancient village of Wadi Hammam -1.5 km from us on the northern side of the brook. There is a correlation in the history of these two villages, beginning somewhere at the end of the second century BC, beginning of the first century BC.

This vicinity has experienced some tough battles, which have caused many thousands of casualties, so it is no wonder that the graves are scattered here throughout the area.

In addition, the area experienced severe earthquakes, two of which ended the lives of many of the residents and were probably the main reason for the disappearance of the 2 villages. The synagogue in Arbel was most likely destroyed by fire in the middle of the eighth century, probably as a result of a very strong earthquake that struck Galilee and was known in scientific literature as the Earthquake of 749 struck on January 18 that year. In Hebrew it was called the “Seventh Noise” because it occurred in a sabbatical year. According to all the evidence, in this earthquake, tens of thousands of people were killed and many buildings were destroyed in the city of Tiberias, Beit She’an and many other places.

The village at Wadi Hammam experienced a crisis at the beginning of the Byzantine period. Most of the houses in the village were abandoned in the middle of the fourth century and the village was completely abandoned at the end of the fourth century or beginning of the fifth century. It is worth noting that many sites in Eastern Galilee were abandoned during a similar period. A leading cause tor this outcome is the earthquakes in the Galilee in 363. There were actually two earthquakes in the Galilee region on May 18 and May19, in the year 363, which among other locations, destroyed the cities of Beit She’an and Susita. Let’s walk towards the brook – as you can see there are remains of dozens of graves hewn in the rock.

If we look at the types of graves common in the country during the Roman period, then most of them are derivatives of a cist grave: For example, a cist grave without a cover, a cist grave with a cover of one type or another of stone, a cist grave built on the ground. Another type of cist grave found here – a rock-hewn cist grave.

Before we further elaborate on the graves here, when talking about burial mainly in the late Second Temple period, there are two important terms to know: The first is a sarcophagus, a word that originated in Greek and means “meat eater”. It is a stone container that is usually made of hard limestone and serves as a coffin. At many sites in Israel, the burial was done in sarcophagi. It is possible that burial in the sarcophagus testified to the high socio-economic status of the deceased. What about wooden coffins? so such have not been preserved, but there is indirect evidence for their existence. Numerous nails and large bronze rings were found that could indicate burial in wooden coffins. It appears to have been an initial burial, and the wooden coffins were inserted into cist graves. The use of wooden coffins is known from several sites in Israel dating to the Roman period.

The second type is ossuary – it is a small box made of pottery or stone that was used for secondary burial, with the purpose to serve as the last resting place for the remains of the human skeleton.

In the first century AD, the use of ossuaries by Jews in the Land of Israel was widely used as a means of “secondary burial”: the body was first buried in a temporary grave, then after approx. a year when the body became a skeleton, its bones were collected and inserted into an ossuary. The minimum size of the ossuary should have been the longest bone length.

Many Jewish sources teach that the secondary burial was very popular in the late Second Temple period, and was called “bone collecting”, and I only mention this as it is different from the practice in the First Temple period when the bones were collected  and then placed in a room which contained the bones of the departed’s ancestors which is the origin of biblical terms such as “gathered up to his ancestors, or lay with his ancestors” and they were few other similar terms.

The practice of collecting the bones stemmed from technical and economic motives such as freeing burial space, but also from religious motives as I previously explained. The collection of bones in ossuaries was due to several reasons, where maybe the leading reason is the belief in resurrection and the desire to keep human bones together in one place which started to become popular during the Second Temple period. The use of ossuaries continued until the beginning of the third century in various parts of the country including the Galilee, in high correlation with places that had a high concentration of Jewish population.

Let’s go back to the cist graves – so examining characteristics such as the size of the graves, direction of their construction, direction of the burial, all are essential to understanding society and its perception of death, as well as understanding whether there was a standard. For the construction of the graves, a standard in burial can stem from the tradition or existence of an entity that regularly handles burial, and in the maintenance of burial sites. So, let’s take a closer look at the cist graves hewn here in the rock – these are hewn rectangular cabinets, you can see that some are still covered with rectangular lids and some are open, you can also see discarded lids in the area. Continuing with the issue of burial characteristics, the rounded niches that were probably intended for the head, face north, and the feet face south. Graves of various sizes can be seen, some small perhaps for children. There are several groups of graves in the area, and I recommend a relatively easy walk, from here to the synagogue in Wadi Hammam and all this along the Arbel brook, when you can watch the caves on the cliffs of Mount Arbel and Mount Nitai along the path.

As always, I will end with a question – What is the name of a famous archaeological site for its necropolis, which in ancient Greek means “city of the dead”, located in Galilee. The answer will appear at the end of the video.

How to get there?

From the ancient synagogue in Arbel, walk several tens of meters towards the northwest until you meet the road through which you arrived at the synagogue parking lot.
After crossing the road you meet a low wall that you have to pass. After that, we begin to descend towards Arbel brook. To reach the area of ​​the graves, you should follow the path markings that lead to the river bed. The location of the graves is roughly halfway between the road and the river bed.

Information Sources

  1. Cathedra 159 - Tombs and burials in the Roman period in Jaffa, Publisher: Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi

Mention in the Bible

  1. Genesis chapter 25 verse 8
  2. Judges chapter 2 verse 10

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