Exactly whose skeleton did they find?
Concordia, St. Paul students, faculty went digging in Palestine last summer.
This past summer, a team of students led by Concordia Univer-sity, St. Paul professor Dr. Mark Schuler opened a unique sarcophagus that was discovered by the Concordia team during an archaeological dig in Israel in 2002. Recent anthropological examination results show that the bones be-longed to a woman, roughly sixty years in age.
Schuler’s team is excavating a Byzantine church (6th century C.E.) at the ancient city of Hippos, thought by some to be the “city set on a hill” referred to by Jesus. Hippos, one of the Decapolis cities of ancient Palestine, is located on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee across from Tiberias.
The discovery of the sarcophagus is unique because such a burial in a Byzantine-era church located in the center of a city was unusual. What is more unusual is that the remains found in the tomb belonged to a woman. “They could be the bones of a wealthy woman in the community, certainly a saintly figure,” speculated Schuler. “Or of a woman who helped found a monastic community.”
The church may have been built at the site in order to house the tomb. “Little is known about the practice of early Christianity in Gali-lee,” said Schuler, who teaches theology and Greek at Concordia. “This archaeological dig helps to uncover the history of early Christ-ianity in the Holy Land.”
Schuler said, “We thought the sarcophagus would house the bones of a saint or martyr. We had no idea that they would belong to a woman, [since it’s] unheard of that a woman be buried in the most holy place of the church.”
In antiquity, sometime after the original burial, the tomb was opened and the bones were carefully positioned at the west end of the sarcophagus under a hole that allowed the pouring in of holy oil. “The fractured skull, pelvis and small bones were surrounded on three sides by larger bones. The sarcophagus, thus, served as a large reliquary.” The results also show that the woman was nearly sixty years old, a rare age for that time period. And, she suffered from severe osteoporosis as well.