From about 20 BCE to 70 CE, the Jews in and around Jerusalem practiced a unique set of burial customs, which blended older Jewish customs with traditions from neighboring cultures and from the Greeks, whose earlier conquest had led to the Hellenization of the entire region (Fine p.2). Ossuaries were an integral part of these burial practices, which involved burying the person two separate times. These ossuaries were usually made from the same materials and decorated according to certain motifs. The ossuary stored in the Kelsey Museum is indicative of the form which most of these artifacts took and the style in which they were fashioned.
In 586 BCE, King Nebuchadnezzar II of the Neo-Babylonian Empire conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple of Solomon, bringing the First Temple Period to an end. Most of the ruling class of the Kingdom of Judah was sent into exile in Babylonia, destroying the kingdom as a political entity. About fifty years later, the Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon and took control of Israel/Palestine. He divided the region into several administrative regions, known as pahvot, and appointed local officials to govern them. Many of the exiled Jews returned to their ancestral homeland, though some chose not to, forming the beginnings of the Jewish Diaspora. The Declaration of Cyrus granted the returning deportees permission and funding to rebuild a temple on the site of the previous one. Construction was temporarily halted after rumors began that the temple would lead to a nationalist uprising, but was later resumed under Darius I. The temple was completed in 516 BCE, marking the beginning of the Second Temple Period.
In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire ...
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...written in Hebrew or Greek, since those were the main spoken languages of the region, but were sometimes written in other languages (Rahmani p.13). The reason for this seems to be that the deceased were Jews who, as a result of the Diaspora, lived in other areas of the Near East, but who wished to be buried near Jerusalem because of its religious significance (Rahmani p.13). Once again, the ossuaries from this period demonstrate the unique cultural fusion which was occurring at that time.
The Kelsey Ossuary and its counterparts demonstrate that the Second Temple Period was a time of significant cultural change in the Jewish community. Outside influences, along with internal shifts in belief, manifested themselves in art, literature, and in the burial of the dead. For the short time they were popular, ossuaries offer an unparalleled window into these developments.