To construct a cist grave, a rectangular space roughly 2 m long and 1 m wide was lined with stones or mud bricks; occasionally, the floor was paved with cobbles and a superstructure erected. The form remained the same whether constructed within settlements or in extramural cemeteries, for primary interments and secondary burials. The earliest Chalcolithic (4300–3300 BCE) examples were for secondary interments in extramural cemeteries. Early in the Middle Bronze Age (2000–1500 BCE), the intramural cist burial was introduced into Canaan from Syro-Mesopotamia as an exclusive method of primary burial for wealthy or prominent individuals. Late Bronze (1500–1200 BCE) and Iron Age (1200–586 BCE) cist graves for primary interments in extramural cemeteries are attributed to Egyptian influence.

The earliest extramural cemeteries are from the Chalcolithic period. In Palestine, in the cemeteries at Adeimah and Shiqmim, in addition to cist burials, contained secondary burials were found. At Shiqmim bones were also collected in ossuaries.

During the Middle Bronze II, elaborate stone-lined and capped pits were constructed at Ugarit in Syria and at Megiddo and Aphek, in Palestine. In the Aphek cists, the bodies were flexed and oriented east-west, with their heads facing east. Secondary remains were interred in recesses in the side wall of one grave, and a second grave contained a ceramic vessel whose type shows a strong northern connection.

Cist Graves

CIST GRAVES. MB I burial in a stone-lined inner chamber. Cairn 160, from the central Negev highlands. (Courtesy ASOR Archives)

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The popularity of extramural cist-grave burial in the Late Bronze and Iron Ages has been attributed to Egyptian influence. Burials at Tell es-Sa῾idiyeh provide the clearest Egyptian or egyptianizing features: an east–west orientation, with the heads usually facing west; Egyptian-linen body wrappings; bitumen-covered bodies; an unusually high incidence of metal artifacts; and an absence of bowls and lamps. Cist graves reached the height of their distribution in Palestine in the thirteenth-eleventh centuries BCE, through the low-land regions of the coast, the Besor River valley, and the Jezreel, Beth-Shean, and Jordan River Valleys (Tell Abu Hawam, Afula, Tell el-῾Ajjul, Tell el-Far῾ah [South], Tell es-Sa῾idiyeh). These were richly provisioned burials for the primary interment of one individual and, rarely, two or three. In the case of multiple interments, one of the individuals was frequently an infant or a child. The mortuary provisions were like those in contemporary pit graves, with bowls for serving food predominating along with jugs and accompanying dipper juglets for liquids, plus luxury items such as jewelry, metal objects, and imported pottery. In some cases, pit graves may have sufficed as a simplified version of a cist grave. In the Tell es-Sa῾idiyeh cemetery, the cist graves contained aesthetically finer and more precious items than did the interspersed simpler interments.

[See also Burial Techniques. In addition, the sites mentioned are the subject of independent entries.]


  • Avi-Yonah, Michael, and Ephraim Stern, eds. Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land. 4 vols. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1975–1978.
    Summary of excavations including results of all earlier expeditions to the sites
  • Ben-Tor, Amnon, ed. The Archaeology of Ancient Israel. Translated by R. Greenberg. New Haven, 1992.
    Collection of essays with differing emphases on the Neolithic through the Iron Age II–III periods
  • Bloch-Smith, Elizabeth. Judahite Burial Practices and Beliefs about the Dead. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement 123. Sheffield, 1992.
    Summary and comprehensive catalog of the Iron Age burials
  • Mazar, Amihai. Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, 10,000–586 B.C.E. New York, 1990.
    Comprehensive, detailed, well-illustrated survey of biblical archaeology, limited only by the traditionalist biblical interpretation
  • Stern, Ephraim, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land. 4 vols. Jerusalem and New York, 1993.
    Supplements Avi-Yonah and Stern (above), with results of more recent excavations and revised interpretations

Elizabeth Bloch-Smith