Discovery and Conservation
In November 1990 the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) in Jerusalem received what seemed to be a routine call. A construction crew working in the Jerusalem Peace Forest had uncovered an ancient burial cave. The rock-cut tomb accidentally struck by the construction workers developing the site for a park lay south of the Old City of Jerusalem in the area of the Peace Forest, in the limestone hillside looking northwards to Abu Tor and the Yalley of Hinnom, and eastwards to the Kidron Yalley below Bir Ayyub, down the Wadi Yasul. The IAA promptly sent archaeologist Zvi Greenhut to check out the report.
Looking down through the collapsed ceiling of the cave, Greenhut noticed four limestone ossuaries, or bone boxes, scattered about in the cave’s central chamber. Ossilegium, as the practice of using ossuaries has been called, was practiced in Israel, mainly in Jerusalem, from just before the turn of the century until the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 C.E. Therefore, Greenhut knew immediately that the cave was a Jewish burial site.
The ossuary is only used to store the bones after the body has decomposed. An ancient burial chamber would include an area where the most recent death in the family lies on a chiselled-out rock bench. A family member would come into the chamber about a year after their death, take the bones, and place them in an ossuary in order to make room on the bench for the next deceased family member.
On the southern side of the tomb was another burial cave, one that the robbers had missed. Inside were two ossuaries that had escaped damage and were still in their original position. The second, larger ossuary (known as ossuary 6) was particularly interesting, being larger and much more richly decorated than all the others in the tomb.
This Ossuary measures 37 centimetres high (14.6 inches), 75 centimetres long (29.6 inches) and is covered with an ornate design. The outside of the ossuary bore two roughly carved inscriptions, written vertically, from bottom upwards. The language of the inscriptions is Aramaic, which, together with Hebrew and Greek, was one of the three languages used by Jews in the Second Temple period. These inscriptions are small in size and crudely drawn, and it is obvious that they were not meant for public display. Rather, the inscriptions were for the purpose of identifying the various family members buried in the tomb. Perhaps also it was believed that writing the deceased person’s name would keep it from being forgotten. They inscriptions also seem to have been made after the ossuary had already been placed in its final position – the scribe had to force his hand down the narrow gap between the ossuary and the wall. Resultantly, the scrawl is difficult to decipher. On the narrow side the inscription reads "Yehosef bar (son of) Qp", on the longer side “Yehosef bar (son of) Qyp" which may be translated as “Joseph, son of Caiaphas”.
The front panel was graced by a leaf pattern enclosing two large circles, separated by a symmetrical floral motif. Each circle contained six small rosettes, an inner one surrounded by five others of various designs, some of which were painted a vibrant orange. A vaulted lid that was similarly decorated and painted orange covered the ossuary. Inside, the ossuary contained partial remains of six people: a sixty-year-old male, an adult woman, two infants, and two children. Presumably this was the family of the sixty-year-old male.
The discovery in 1990 brought excitement to the world of archaeology. The 60 year old man found in the ossuary was determined by Greenhut and others to be the high priest involved in the crucifixion of Jesus, Joseph Caiaphas. The discovery therefore holds great New Testament significance and counts as very important evidence for supporting the historical truth of Jesus' crucifixion.
After the bones had been examined by physical anthropologists and physicians at the Hadasah Medical Center, they were reburied at night in a secret location on the Mount of Olives. Today, the Caiaphas Ossuary can be viewed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.