Large underground cemeteries, catacombs typically consist of a network of long, subterranean galleries whose walls have been cut as graves. Sometimes galleries open into rectangular or quadrangular rooms (cubicula). Such rooms usually contain rock-cut graves; occasionally, they also contain sarcophagi (stone containers used as coffins). [See Sarcophagus.] In the ancient Near East, catacombs normally consisted of galleries situated on one level. In the early Christian catacombs in Rome, by contrast, it is not unusual to find as many as four galleries one on top of the other.
The term catacomb derives from the Greek kata kumbēn, a toponym that means “near the hollow.” In the Roman period it was used to denote a particular spot on the Via Appia, near the Catacomb of Sebastiano and the Circus of Maxentius, where the terrain suddenly drops tangibly. In exceptional cases, as in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, catacombs were used to deposit the remains of mummified animals. Normally, however, catacombs served in the burial or reburial of the mortal remains of human beings. Discoveries in Roman Palestine and in Rome itself show that both the Jewish and the early Christian communities used catacombs. It is not clear, however, whether the idea of burial in catacombs first originated in Jewish or in early Christian circles.
Burial in catacombs was customary from the late second to the early sixth centuries CE. Extensive remains of catacombs have been found throughout the Mediterranean area, including the Near East. Yet, in Late Antiquity, burial in catacombs seems to have been particularly popular in Italy (e.g., at Rome, Naples, Venosa) and on the islands adjoining it (particularly Sicily and Malta).
Catacombs differ from other types of underground tombs in size, formal appearance, and, consequently, in function. In the ancient Near East, subterranean tombs were usually mere underground structures (hypogea). They offered a final resting place to a restricted group of people only—the members of an extended family. Compared to burial in such family tombs, burial in catacombs always remained exceptional in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. Occurring during a relatively short period of time only, the use of catacombs must be taken to reflect a particular attitude toward burying the dead. With their long underground galleries, catacombs were designed from the outset to accommodate the remains of large groups of people that either had to be or wanted to be buried or reburied together in a given locality.
In contrast to Rome, where more than sixty catacombs are known, only a few catacombs have been discovered in the Near East. Among the sparse finds, the dozen or so Jewish catacombs at Beth-She῾arim (Lower Galilee) are certainly the most important because of the abundance of archaeological and epigraphic remains preserved there. [See Beth-She῾arim.] No less significantly, Beth-She῾arim is the only catacomb complex in the region that was studied systematically by its excavators (Avigad, 1971; Mazar, 1973).
In the Near East a few early catacombs believed to be Christian, but that may be Jewish-Christian, have also been discovered. One such catacomb came to light in the late nineteenth century CE on the Mt. of Olives in Jerusalem at a site known as Viri Galilei (Schick, 1889). The so-called Tomb of the Prophets, also located on the Mt. of Olives, has also been known since the nineteenth century and is still accessible (Vincent, 1901). It consists of several short, semicircularly shaped galleries. Despite its unusual plan, it too must be considered a catacomb. An early Christian catacomb was discovered and partially excavated in the late 1960s, at Emesa/Homs in Syria (Bounni, 1970). In Alexandria (Egypt), many subterranean Christian tombs, often referred to as early Christian catacombs, were discovered from 1820 to 1890; most of them are now destroyed (Leclercq, 1924). Although adequate documentation on the formal appearance of these Alexandrinian tombs is often lacking, the use of the term catacomb to describe them is incorrect. Characteristic of Alexandria's early Christian funerary architecture is the hypogeum—in this case a collection of subterranean rooms arranged around a central courtyard. Such hypogea were dug in proximity to one another. Not unusually, they were interconnected to form large underground complexes. Yet, they lack a catacomb's most distinguishing feature: galleries dug specifically for the deposition of the deceased members of an entire community.
Because ancient tombs have often been robbed, it is usually difficult to establish when precisely a given catacomb came into use or when burial ceased there. Archaeological small finds can, however, point to the approximate period of its use. Thus, it was ascertained that the Jewish catacombs at Beth-She῾arim were in use mainly from the late second to the middle of the fourth centuries CE. The precise dating of the catacomb on the Mt. of Olives has not been achieved. It is not unlikely though that burials took place there in the third-fifth centuries CE. The Tomb of the Prophets is dated to the fourth and fifth centuries. The Christian catacomb at Emesa Homs has been dated by its excavator to the third-seventh centuries (Bounni, 1970).
The size and layout of a catacomb's complex network of underground galleries and cubicula are determined by several factors: the workability of the rock, the amount of space needed, and the degree of planning involved. In Rome, for example, the earliest catacombs frequently consist of a network of irregular galleries (curvilinear galleries that seem to go into every direction). Galleries in later Roman catacombs, on the other hand, display a much more systematic layout (Brandenburg, 1984). Such developments in planning testify to a rise in the popularity of burial in catacombs, as well as to the need to dispose of the ever-increasing number of dead in the most rational way. This explains why in many of the catacombs at Beth-She῾arim, too, a tendency toward symmetry and the economic use of space is discernible.
In catacombs, different types of rock-cut graves were used. Some graves are long, rectangular slots that were cut parallel to the wall. These loculi take up little wall space, and so it is not unusual to find rows of up to seven or eight loculi, one on top of the other. Another rectangular grave, the kokh, is cut at right angles to the wall and goes right into it. The term kokh has a clear association with the practice of secondary burial in the Near East and is borrowed from the East Semitic language groups (Meyers, 1971). Despite a clear difference in formal appearance, the terms loculus and kokh are often used interchangeably in scholarly literature, which may lead to confusion. A third type of wall-cut grave, known as an acrcosolium, consists of one or more rectangular containers that are dug into the rock and overarched by a vault. The fourth and by far the simplest type of rock-cut grave is also rectangular: dug into thefloor of a gallery or burial room, it is known as a pit grave, or forma.
Rock-cut graves of the kind listed above normally offered enough space for one person only, though in some instances they were used for multiple reburials. They were sealed in various ways: with stones, bricks, rubble, or with a marble plate that sometimes carried a funerary inscription. In catacombs, burial in sarcophagi (coffins made of either stone, terra cotta, wood, or lead) is not very common. Unexpectedly, the underground galleries of catacomb 20 at Beth-She῾arim were found filled with 125 well-preserved specimens of large sarcophagi, the great majority of which are of local limestone (Avigad, 1976). Another peculiarity confined to the catacombs at Beth-She῾arim is the use of ossuaries—small stone or wooden containers used for secondary burial. [See Ossuary.] Together with sarcophagi and loculi, the vast majority of burials at Beth-She῾arim were reburials, testifying to the Jewish idea of the importance of burial or reburial in the land of Eretz-Israel, where resurrection would occur and where the land had atoning powers (Zlotnick, 1966).
With the exception of ossuaries, which reflect a typically Jewish funerary philosophy (at least in Roman Palestine), the grave forms listed above occur in Jewish and Christian catacombs alike. In fact, in the second-fourth centuries CE, there are no major differences between catacombs and hypogea, either in terms of grave types or burial customs. The tombs in the Jewish catacombs at Beth-She῾arim and in the early Christian catacombs at Viri Galilei are remarkably similar in both shape and selection of tomb types to those found in contemporary hypogea, such as the chamber tombs of the Dominus Flevit cemetery in Jerusalem. Evidence from these catacombs and hypogea shows cumulatively that in second—fourth-century Palestine, the arcosolium slowly but steadily replaced the kokh as the most popular grave form. Similarly, archaeological materials from the catacombs at Beth-She῾arim and from hypogea at Meiron, Khirbet Shema῾, Gezer, Ramat Rahel, and Horvat Thala in Roman Palestine document that in the period under discussion the same trends in burial customs affected the funerary customs in catacombs and hypogea. It is now known, for example, that secondary burial continued to be practiced in different parts of Roman Palestine throughout antiquity, but that it lost much of the popularity it had enjoyed in first-century CE Jerusalem.
The single most important factor leading to the genesis and subsequent evolution of burial in catacombs was that large numbers of people could be buried together without taking up too much space. The various stages of this process can best be seen in Rome. There, the earliest Christian catacombs are nothing but a collection of irregularly shaped galleries. Originating in deserted quarries, cisterns, and water channels, these subterranean galleries maintained the character of privately owned tombs until more space and more systematic planning were needed. In the third and fourth centuries, Rome's Christian community—all people who had to be buried—rapidly increased in size, and many Christians wanted to be buried near the remains of their martyrs. Beginning in the period of Pope Zephyrinus (199–217), who appointed one Callistus as overseer of a catacomb, the Christian community was enabled to fulfill an obligation it had taken upon itself—to bury the Christian poor. Planned catacombs were dug that were no longer privately owned and offered room for all members of the Early Christian community (Brandenburg, 1984).
It is not clear whether similar factors shaped the contemporary development of catacomb architecture in the Near East. It is clear, however, that in the eastern part of the Mediterranean, catacombs were constructed because this form of burial offered the same advantages the inhabitants of Rome had come to appreciate. Beginning in the second century CE, Beth-She῾arim replaced Jerusalem as the most prestigious Jewish necropolis. This happened, in part, because many Palestinian and Diaspora Jews alike believed that burial in the land of Israel was to be preferred over burial in the Diaspora (cf. Tosefta, A.Z. 4:3: “He who is buried in the Land of Israel is as though he were buried under the altar”). The presence, in the Beth-She῾arim catacombs, of the earthly remains of important Jewish religious and political leaders of the time must have been a major attraction as well. In the historical development of the Christian catacombs of Jerusalem, other, comparable factors are likely to have played a role. Inscriptions indicate that the people buried in the Tomb of the Prophets were pilgrims who had either died accidentally in Jerusalem or who had traveled there with the intention of securing their last resting place in proximity to the Holy City.
Little is known about those responsible for the exploitation and administration of catacombs. In fourth- and early fifth-century Rome, specialized gravediggers (fossores) can be shown to have worked by order of the church. At the same time, however, some of these fossores are known to have operated as independent entrepreneurs. Whether individual Roman parish churches each administered their own catacomb is a hypothesis that has frequently been advanced but never been proved conclusively (Guyon, 1987). The inscriptional evidence from Beth-She῾arim and Acmonia (Asia Minor) as well as rabbinic literature suggest the existence of Jewish burial societies, but it is impossible to determine whether such colleges were also responsible for excavating and supervising catacombs (Schwabe and Lifschitz, 1974).
The same factors that led to the development of catacombs also caused its abandonment in Late Antiquity. With the dramatic drop in population in sixth-century Rome, burial shifted from catacombs to the exterior of churches within the Aurelian city wall. Beth-She῾arim, perhaps destroyed during the Gallus Revolt of 351–352, had already ceased to be a center of importance. A decrease in the number of Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem must have been the determining factor that led to the discontinuation of burial in catacombs there.
From the Hellenistic and Roman Near East, several underground complexes are known whose walls are dotted with small niches, known as columbaria, measuring, on average, 20 × 20 × 15 cm. Examples of these columbaria are preserved in, among other places, Roman Palestine (Beth-Guvrin, Dor, Gezer, Masada, Ramat Rahel, Samaria); Roman Arabia (Petra); and Asia Minor (Sebaste in Cilicia). Such complexes are normally located in the same general areas as tombs. For that reason and because the niches they contain resemble somewhat the niches of subterranean constructions in Rome whose funerary function is beyond doubt, scholars have suggested that cremated human remains were placed in these Near Eastern counterparts. Inasmuch as there is no archaeological evidence to show that the niches in the columbaria ever contained ashes, the conclusion is problematic. Other scholars have suggested that these complexes may have been used to raise and keep pigeons.
Burial of hundreds or even thousands of animals in catacombs is an exclusively Egyptian phenomenon. Such animals were first mummified, wrapped in embroidered cloth, and then deposited in either limestone sarcophagi or pottery jars. They were layed to rest in winding underground galleries that could be hundreds of meters long. In Alexandria (Rhacotis), such “animal catacombs” were found to contain the mummified remains of dogs. In Memphis they contained the cadavers of bulls, while catacombs in Saqqara, Baklija (near Hermopolis), and Tuna el-Gebel testify to the cultic veneration of the ibis and, at the latter sites, also to that of the baboon. The practice of burying mummified animals in catacombs seems to have begun as early as the thirtieth dynasty (380–342 BCE) but did not gain widespread popularity until the Hellenistic and Roman periods (Kessler, 1983).
Iconography and Inscriptions.
The artistic remains from catacombs represent not only the development of art in antiquity but also burial customs, ideas about death and afterlife, social relations, the economy, and gender (Peskowitz, 1993). For example, the discovery and scientific study of the Beth-She῾arim catacombs profoundly changed the ways in which scholars view the genesis of rabbinic Judaism and the interaction of Jewish and non-Jewish cultures in antiquity.
Little is known about the aesthetics of the few catacombs discovered so far in the Near East, except at Beth-She῾arim, where the iconography represented on the walls includes menorahs, the Ark of the Law, human figures, animals, ships, and geometric designs. Impressive portals with elaborately rendered stone doors and courtyards with mosaic floors lend monumentality to the entrances to its catacombs. [See Mosaics.] Inside, many of the sarcophagi, mostly of local production, show a rich iconographic repertoire consisting of crudely carved human figures and animals. A combination of three elements characterizes Beth-She῾arim's artistic corpus: a lack of narrative themes, the absence of scenes taken from the Hebrew Bible, and a preference for motifs that are not only often religiously neutral, but that sometimes (especially on sarcophagi) are of clear pagan derivation. That the users of these catacombs were indeed vividly aware of the artistic achievements of non-Jewish workshops located on the Phoenician coast, or in Greece and Asia Minor, can also be inferred from the remains of imported marble and lead sarcophagi (Avigad, 1976). Another noticeable feature about the Beth-She῾arim catacombs is that elaborate cycles of wall paintings are absent; this contrasts markedly with the evidence preserved in the Jewish and Early Christian catacombs in the western Mediterranean, where such wall paintings do decorate most catacombs.
At Beth-She῾arim, many small finds—lamps, pottery, glass vessels, bronze and iron artifacts, and items of personal adornment—further enrich what is known of ancient art, manufacturing techniques, and Jewish burial customs and have enabled the dating of individual catacombs.
Often characterized by great conciseness, painted and incised funerary inscriptions as well as graffiti inform about a wide variety of issues, including the deceased's social, economic, and religious status, place of origin, onomastic practices, language, and religious beliefs and practices. Thus, it is known that the people buried in the Tomb of the Prophets and in the catacomb of Viri Galilei spoke Greek, and that some of them hailed from such cities as Harpagia (Asia Minor), Bostra, Palmyra, and Batanea (Schick, 1989; Vincent, 1901).
The inscriptions from the Beth-She῾arim catacombs document the extent to which the Greek language, Greek literary form, and Greek ideas about death and afterlife had made inroads into a community in which the rabbinic element was unmistakable, if not dominant. Eighty percent of the Beth-She῾arim inscriptions are in Greek, one of them a metric inscription composed in Homeric hexameters. Other inscriptions found at Beth-She῾arim are in Hebrew, particularly in catacomb 14, which may contain the grave of Judah I the Patriarch, a well-known rabbinic figure traditionally regarded as the redactor of the Mishnah. Still other inscriptions are in Palmyrene. [See Palmyrene Inscriptions.] Together with the Greek inscriptions, the Palmyrene epitaphs indicate that Beth-She῾arim rapidly evolved into a funerary center of supraregional importance: leaders of Jewish Diaspora communities as far apart as Byblos, Sidon, Tyre, Beirut, Antioch, Palmyra, Nehardea (Mesopotamia), and southern Arabia all had their mortal remains brought to Beth-She῾arim for final interment (Schwabe and Lifschitz, 1974; Nagakubo, 1974).
- Avigad, Nahman. Beth She῾arim: Report on the Excavations during 1953–1958, vol. 3, Catacombs 12–23. Jerusalem, 1971. Standard treatment on the second part of the excavations in the catacombs of Beth-She῾arim.
- Bounni, Adnan. “Les catacombes d'Émèse (Homs) en Syrie.” Archeologia 37 (1970): 42–49. The only preliminary report presently available on the excavations.
- Brandenburg, Hugo. “Überlegungen zu Ursprung und Entstehung der Katakomben Roms.” Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 11 (1984): 11–49. Standard review essay on the origin and development of the Christian catacombs in Rome.
- Buhagiar, Mario. Late Roman and Byzantine Catacombs and Related Burial Places in the Maltese Islands. British Archaeological Reports, International Series, no. 302. Oxford, 1986. Comprehensive study of underground cemeteries on Malta and of their inscriptions; richly illustrated and with references to earlier studies on the subject.
- Fasola, Umberto M. La catacombe di San Gennaro a Capodimonte. Rome, 1975. Monographic study of the building history of the largest Early Christian catacomb in Naples.
- Garana, Ottavio. Le catacombe siciliane e i loro martiri. Palermo, 1961. Somewhat outdated account of catacomb burial on Sicily; useful for its comprehensiveness and illustrations.
- Guyon, Jean. Le cimetière aux deux lauriers: Recherches sur les catacombes romaines. Rome, 1987. Authoritative work on the building history of the catacomb of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter in Rome; especially important for its general methodological observations.
- Kessler, Dieter. “Die Galerie C von Tuna el-Gebel.” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Kairo 39 (1983): 107–124. Excavation report on the ibis catacombs in Tuna el-Gebel; richly illustrated and with references to earlier literature on the subject.
- Leclercq, Henri. “Alexandrie: Archéologie.” In Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, vol. 1.1, cols. 1098–1182. Paris, 1924. Comprehensive survey of otherwise difficult-to-locate excavation reports on the early Christian funerary architecture of Alexandria.
- Marinone, M., et al. “Cimetières inconnus d'Italie.” Les Dossiers de l'Archéologie 19 (1976): 68–81. Brief account of Early Christian hypogea and catacombs discovered in Tuscany, Abbruzzo, and Latium and on Sardinia.
- Mazar, Benjamin, et al. Beth She῾arim: Report on the Excavations during 1936–1940, vol. 1, Catacombs 1–4. Jerusalem, 1973. Standard treatment on the first part of the excavations.
- Meyers, Eric M. Jewish Ossuaries: Reburial and Rebirth. Rome, 1971. Major study of Jewish reburial into containers and various cavities and its theological significance.
- Meyers, Eric M. “Report on the Venosa Catacombs, 1981.” Vetera Christianorum 20 (1983): 455–459. English summary of the discovery of a hitherto unknown catacomb complex in southern Italy.
- Nagakubo, Senzo. “Investigation into Jewish Concepts of Afterlife in the Beth-She῾arim Greek Inscriptions.” Ph.D. diss., Duke University, 1974. Detailed review of the extent to which Greek concepts of afterlife entered Jewish epigraphic formulae at Beth-She῾arim.
- Peskowitz, Miriam. “The Work of Her Hands: Gendering Everyday Life in Roman-Period Judaism in Palestine (70–250 CE), Using Textile Production as a Case Study.” Ph.D. diss., Duke University, 1993. Methodologically interesting study (esp. pp. 244–294) on how grave gifts can be used for writing social history.
- Rutgers, Leonard V. “Überlegungen zu den jüdischen Katakomben Roms.” Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 33 (1990): 140–157. Critical review of the origin and chronology of the Jewish catacombs in Rome.
- Schick, Conrad. “Katakomben auf dem Ölberg.” Zeitschrift des deutschen Palästina-Vereins 12 (1889): 193–199. The only available report on an Early Christian catacomb in Jerusalem that has since disappeared.
- Schwabe, Moshe, and Baruch Lifshitz. Beth She῾arim, vol. 2, The Greek Inscriptions. New Brunswick, N.J., 1974. Standard corpus that should be consulted in conjunction with Avigad (above).
- Vincent, L.-H. “Le tombeau des prophètes.” Revue Biblique 10 (1901): 72–88. The only substantial study on this Early Christian catacomb in Jerusalem.
- Zilliu, G. “Antichità paleocristiane di Sulcis.” Nuovo Bullettino Archeologico Sardo 1 (1984): 283–300. Description of Early Christian hypogea and wall paintings on Sardinia.
- Zlotnick, Dov. The Tractate “Mourning” (Semaḥot). Yale Judaica Series, vol. 17. New Haven, 1966. Critical edition of a treatise that is basic to any understanding of Jewish burial customs.
Leonard V. Rutgers and Eric M. Meyers