This photo shows the opening to two of the tombs at the Khalet al-Jam'a necropolis.

4,000-Year-Old Necropolis with more than 100 Tombs Discovered Near Bethlehem

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By studying and excavating ancient burial grounds, we can learn about how final respects were paid when people died during ancient times.  The artifacts located alongside these remains also provide insight into what items people valued and what they believed about the afterlife.  A 2013 discovery of an ancient burial ground near Bethlehem is providing new information about one civilization that lived approximately 4000 years ago. 

In 2013, efforts began to build an industrial park near Bethlehem, leading to a discovery that may prove to offer fresh insights about the ancient world.  The area where the industrial park was to be built held an ancient necropolis containing over 100 tombs.  Upon this discovery, researchers came to the area to see what they could learn about the burial ground, and the civilization that one occupied the area.  According to Lorenzo Nigro of Sapienza University of Rome , negotiations commenced, and the construction company ultimately agreed to cease activities in the preserved portion of the burial ground.

According to Live Science , the burial ground covers 3 hectares (7.4 acres). In 2014, researchers from the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities of Palestine excavated the archaeological site, called Khalet al-Jam'a, and discovered more than 100 tombs.  A year later, a joint Italian-Palestinian team carried out surveys at Khalet al-Jam’a to plan for future exploration, with the goal of exploring and preserving the necropolis. 

A map of the area where the ancient burial ground was found on a hillside. The Khalet al-Jam'a necropolis is located just to the south of Bethlehem.

A map of the area where the ancient burial ground was found on a hillside. The Khalet al-Jam'a necropolis is located just to the south of Bethlehem. Credit: ®ROSAPAJ - Sapienza University Rome.

At 4000 years old, the necropolis dates back to the Middle Bronze and Iron Age.   According to Nigro, the necropolis is located near ancient trade routes and may have been the burial ground for a relatively wealthy society, as indicated by the grave goods found in the tombs.  Nigro reported to Live Science “[t]ypical pieces of the burial sets are finely executed carinated bowls, small shouldered jars/bowls with everted rim[s], one-spouted lamps, huge and well-refined Canaanite jars with two or four handles, as well as bronze daggers and spearheads.” 

Nigro also speculates that the town may have suffered from a crisis, which led to the ceasing of burials around 650 B.C.   The nature of the crisis is unclear, although the Assyrian and Babylonian empires were using military efforts to capture land in the area at the time.

One interesting find at the site was a tomb that contained scarabs, dating back to 13th dynasty of Egypt (1802 B.C. to 1640 B.C.).  This is not surprising, as Egyptians were active in the area at this time, conquering and trading.  However, it has been speculated that these particular scarabs were made locally. 

In the tomb labeled A2, archaeologists found two Egyptian-like amulets, known as scarabs.

In the tomb labeled A2, archaeologists found two Egyptian-like amulets, known as scarabs. Credit: ®ROSAPAJ - Sapienza University Rome.

According to the McClung Museum , the scarab is the most important amulet of ancient Egypt, “symbolically as sacred to the Egyptians as the cross is to Christians.”  In some instances, ancient people wore a scarab to ensure a safe journey into the afterworld.  One scarab found at Khalet al-Jam’a contained swirling designs and hieroglyphics, while the other was decorated with a series of circles.  One other tomb contained the remains of a man, a woman, and a small child, buried with bronze daggers and several ceramic pieces.  Another tomb contained the remains of a male, buried with a ceramic lamp.

Discoveries at Khalet al-Jam’a are providing a window into the civilization that inhabited the area during that time, revealing more about their way of life and view of death.

Featured image: This photo shows the opening to two of the tombs at the Khalet al-Jam'a necropolis. Credit: ®ROSAPAJ - Sapienza University Rome.

By M R Reese

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