A discovery that started when North Carolina college students happened on a violated tomb below Jerusalem’s Mount Zion has shed light on the burial of a possible contemporary of Jesus, an archaeologist said.
The group of student volunteers led by professor James Tabor from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte three years ago discovered a recently robbed tomb that yielded the shroud-wrapped skeletal remains of an affluent member of the old city.
“It was only just by chance that this discovery was made,” said Shimon Gibson, a senior fellow at the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem.
Gibson plans to discuss the results of DNA analysis, carbon dating and forensic puzzling in a lecture Monday at UNC-Charlotte. He will discuss the findings again Wednesday at the American Schools of Oriental Research conference in Atlanta.
In the spring of 2000, after a morning of excavating and cataloging the day’s finds from another dig, Gibson, Tabor and a handful of UNC-Charlotte students went on a hike through Jerusalem’s Hinom Valley, a Jewish burial ground for almost 3,000 years.
One of the students spotted a tomb that had been opened up with artifacts scattered outside, Gibson said. The find was lucky because contact with oxygen and humidity would have disintegrated the cloth wrapping around the body, or shroud, within a few months, Gibson said.
Oded Borowski, a specialist in biblical archaeology at Emory University in Atlanta, said the find was a precious one.
“It’s not common because most burials, especially in the area around Jerusalem, were robbed in antiquity. In most cases, the conditions for preservation were not that good,” Borowski said.
A scientific team Gibson assembled from The Hebrew University and other institutions determined that textile and human remains were preserved for nearly 2,000 years because a natural crack in the soft limestone carried ground water beneath and away from the spot, keeping them dry.
With the approval of the Israel Antiquities Authority and support from the Foundation for Biblical Archaeology, a Goldsboro nonprofit that supports scientific research of biblical places and cultures, small samples of the shroud were sent to the University of Arizona for carbon dating. The Arizona lab determined the Jerusalem shroud was from the middle of the first century A.D., Gibson said.
That meant the corpse was of someone who was probably living in Jerusalem at the same time as Jesus, Gibson said.
DNA tests found that the body was that of an adult male who suffered from tuberculosis and leprosy _ both of which were rare diseases among Jews of the period.
The shroud and several strands of hair suggest the individual had been an aristocrat or high priest who could afford good grooming, Gibson said. The hair was clean and free of lice, which was a problem for many at that time.
“Even though he suffered from leprosy, he had hair cleaned on a regular basis,” Gibson said.