The Talpiyot Unguentarium

Posted in: Archaeology and Bible, Archaeology in the News, ASOR, Excavations
Tags: , , , ,
Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+0Email this to someoneShare on Reddit0Share on StumbleUpon0Share on LinkedIn0

Dr. Joan E. Taylor, Dept. of Theology and Religious Studies, King’s College London

It is easy to feel in this quest to identify the picture of a ‘whale’ a sense that we are all staring at the same ink-blot and seeing different things. The architectural edifice/tower/tomb monument theory does not quite work, because there are little ‘flaps’ on each side, the sides are concave and the circular blob is not explained well. In addition, as James Tabor has said, no one would draw a tomb monument upside down on the side of an ossuary. However, no one would draw a fish in this position on an ossuary either. Instead, viewed the right way up, there is a simpler solution: the picture depicts a small receptacle often used in tombs, called an unguentarium. (more…)

Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+0Email this to someoneShare on Reddit0Share on StumbleUpon0Share on LinkedIn0
66 Comments for : The Talpiyot Unguentarium
  1. Reply

    Excellent analysis. I was looking into pottery today; amphorae tend to have unique handles which this iconography lacked. My initial impressions led me to either unguentarium or even an alabrastron (though less likely–the shapes were just similar). Someone else brought up the similarity to a krater, but unguentarium are the better bet.

  2. Reply

    Thanks Joan…So glad to have you weigh in on this. Do you know of any parallels on other ossuaries–trying to think offhand. I wonder what you think of the "ball" on the end. It is quite prominent and seems to break the pattern. Also the stick figure with arms in the classic oaanes/fish man pose of Eastern style? And the very irregular "tail" or in your view, rim. So nice to move beyond the nephesh idea, which to me is such a non-starter I have problems carrying on any discussion.

  3. Reply

    Oh Joan, I forgot…I actually think the orientation down on this figure, as I point out in my post, makes perfect sense. This is not the fish swimming in the sea but the fish vomiting Jonah onto the land…It is oriented according to the four corners of the Greek perception of the cosmos–heaven above, earth beneath, and the left and right endless water or the uncharted. The point is not the fish, but the guy getting spat out! No point, in this time, in this culture, of just drawing fish. I think all the cues in this text are taken from the passage I quoted in my article from the book of Jonah…in fact the four major symbols on the ossuary are all in those three verses. These are not random "decorations," they were not from the ossuary shop, so to speak, they seem to me to be reflective of individual expression. Some have called the drawing crude. I find it amazingly well executed and I think one of the problems with the human figure was a reluctance to make it "realistic," just as faces are turned at Dura, etc. in deference to the "graven image" prohibition.

  4. Reply

    James, have you seen glass unguentarium? They usually have balls at the bottom of them much like the one in this picture and many of them resemble the iconography well:

  5. Reply

    Also see this hellenistic sandglass amphora, you'll note the ball clearly at the bottom:

    The ball is prominent in glass jugs (proper term fails me at the moment, getting rather tired after a long day) of the time, it seems.

  6. Reply

    Thanks Joan, yes, of course, we actually have found lots of glass vessels of this type at our Mt Zion dig and the images of the amphora I cite in my article have the bulbed bottom, as does the artwork on our web site showing a typical amphora (see my blog site), but as with the ones you and Tom note here the "ball" appears to be flatten and much less prominent. We were also quite intrigued with the careful way our ossuary image has lined in the "ball," connecting it to the stick figure in a stylized oaanes (rather than the later orans) pose. Also the "tail" i.e. does not look at all like the mouth of such a vessel, but has a very prominent, asymmetrical left tip. We had also connected this image–as with the dag gadol of Jonah–to Leviathan/Rahab/tanim images, of which we mainly have literary descriptions, but the markings on the body of the image, that led Fine, Meyers, and others to see a tower/building motif, fits well with such descriptions–scales and plates, with fins, indicating a kosher imaginary creature that the righteous can consume in the last day–when "death is swallowed up." One could argue primitive and even sloppy execution but the more we have studied this image, and the other markings on the ossuary, the more we have been impressed with its rather deliberate features. I feel silly getting into this in a comment on a blog post, but it is early morning here and the coffee is kicking in.

  7. Reply

    Okay, Joan, you inspired me this morning to put down a few thoughts regarding your proposal. Thanks for the stimulating ideas…See my latest blog post:

    BTW, we are getting clearance from Discovery to release some nice stills taken from live footage of the image that will allow people to study it more directly. Our CGI enhancements were intended to help not mislead, as some have charged, but the actual color shots are what we worked form. I hope to be able to upload these to our web site: sometime later today. We will follow that with color images of the inscription from all angles as soon as those images can be prepared. They have to be pulled from video footage, and we have hundreds of hours in various lighting conditions.

  8. Reply

    James, just curious, why do the comments seem to be closed on your blog? Is it a technical problem or am I just missing something?



  9. Reply

    Thanks for this very nice, very convincing piece. Understanding it as a "nephesh tower" seemed to me to be much preferable to a "fish," but your parallels are really quite perfect…and an unguentarium (contextually) also makes perfect sense, as you rightly argue. Thanks again. With all best wishes, Chris Rollston

  10. Reply

    Good suggestion, Joan. As I wrote Feb. 29 (comment to Jodi's post), the orientation is one reason it is quite unlikely to be a monster fish. It is unusual to present claims from unnamed and unnumbered scholars, in this case, reportedly suggesting am oannes-like figure in the eastern style. Would the tomb owners recognize and prefer such proposed style and iconography? And the x-ray vision required to see the "stick figure" inside the fish in a posture familiar to whom? I don't see a fish eye. I see "little swimming fish" as mere ornamentation. Why does the supposedly-submerging fish on the end look different? Might that be, rather, an altar, or incense burner? Might the other end depict, say, a sealed tomb? And the fourth side? If James and Simcha (and whoever the unnamed people are who reportedly support them, and large amounts of money, and how many signed non-disclosure agreements?) claim a picture cycle of Jonah, would it be fair to expect the fourth side to have a clearer picture on Jonah, whether praying, or sulking under his vine because people ceased to believe him any more?

  11. Reply


    We had to close them because of so many hundreds of people writing abusive things when the Talpiot tomb story broke in 2007. I just did not have time to moderate. I don't mean responsible critics and counter views but mobs of people who were very angry, name calling, damning me to hell, etc. Mostly it was from the right-wing Christian camp…Kind of like the bogus "underwear" thing that a certain fellow is falsely hanging on Simcha right now. It is ugly out there–unfortunately.

  12. Reply

    Sorry Tom, above, I was intending to post to you but had "Joan" on my mind! I do know you two apart…

  13. Reply

    Stephen, the unnamed scholar can speak when she wishes but she is not interested right now in blog posts. I think it is a cultural thing. You don't need a name to research the posture, it is all over the internet, much less in standard reference books. If this is the earliest representation of Jonah why would you expect it to compare with Jonah cycles, so popular, 200 years later. Why would you think a Jonah vomited onto land needs to be oriented up or right or left to be a fish? I don't get your point. Do you know of any other little fish ornamentation on any ossuary? Remind me, what photos did you want ( I will try to get them to you today…finally catching up. I looked for your original e-mail and somehow it got lost.

  14. Reply

    Any unguentarium on any other ossuaries? If Joan is right would this be a first in this otherwise nondescript and very "ordinary" tomb 🙂

    Nothing I see in Rahmani, Hachlili, or Figueras, but I might have missed something here…BTW, Rahmani makes the point about amphora that they are relatively rare as they represent cremation, i.e., funerary urns, so generally were not the rage with most of the population other than those who wanted to be more Greco-Roman fashionable.

  15. Pingback: TaborBlog » Blog Archive » A Perfume Flask or a Fish?

    • floyd kobler
    • March 3, 2012

    if you turn the picture of what you see as the whale to where the ball is on top mabe you will see what i do a mans head wraped in a turbin wearing a long robe that goes to the ground with his hands out streached

    • Paul Regnier
    • March 3, 2012

    James – if the orientation of the image isn't relevant to how it is interpreted, I do have to ask why you have felt the need to rotate the image to a right-left orientation on the Jesus Discovery website and the "meet the authors" video on it? This seems to be skewing the viewer's perception towards the fish explanation, against other possible interpretations.

    I can't claim much expertise in this area, but to me if it is a top-bottom fish, it looks like it's spitting Jonah/Jesus directly into hell… Would a first century Christian really have wanted that image on his or her tomb?!

    • Tim
    • March 3, 2012

    I've been curious from the start as to what the (wishbone or Y) looking pattern might mean in the middle of the artists depiction. And also the (v or w) looking patter beside it. Possibly others have commented on this before and I missed it. I'm also unable to see the references made to (small fish) though remember that one report indicated they were depicted in the border. Could use enlightenment on these 2 questions.

    • Tomasz Sobczyk
    • March 3, 2012

    Prof. Tabor, could you present such an image, where you clearly show (even by thickening the lines on an original picture) where is the eye of fish, "F-like", the arms of the figure that are positioned in a classic eastern pose, etc??

    Or if this is somewhere on your blog or the official site, could you paste the link?

  16. Reply

    The ungentarium theory sounds interesting. However, it is about 10 times larger than the largest ungentarium known to us which does not make sense if the incision was an ungentarium.

    Moreover, most ungentaria were made of pottery and not glass, and all pottery ungentaria have a flat base.

    • Tim
    • March 3, 2012

    One could say yes this is a fish but instead of it representing Jonah And The Whale, it instead represents the simple fact that the deceased was a fisherman by occupation. If so and unfortunately, the deceased would have also wound up on the wrong side of the 'catch & release' maneuver. Perhaps an early Christian symbol of resurrection would be more relevant, especially concerning sobering reflexions one would naturally have with issues like hope, faith, life and death.

    I finally found the border fish.

    Impression 1- The original photo, certainly shows a slight leaning, bending representation that aligns itself to also include the tail in the same ever so suddle curve. wholly realistic and conducive to whale's natural movements in water. While looking at one after another unguentarium today on google image, I found none with irregular bending. But rather all were perfectly aligned objects and straightness would define them. And Impression 2- The Old Testament story of Jonah includes scripture that informs the reader that seaweed covered his head. Stick Man definitely seems to have his head covered with something.

    • Joe Zias
    • March 4, 2012

    Regarding Tabors claims of mobs of people attaching him and I assume Simcha this is another attempt to hoodwink the people. When the 2007 film appeared they mentioned that there was such ruckus that security people had to be posted at the site, so I biked over immed. (ca 10 minutes away) and the only people there were 2 or 3 media people waiting for the hordes. Not a soul in site. Same thing last week, people in the building whom I had spoken with earlier were told that they may need increased security when the story broke, only to find again not a person around. No TV, no reporters, no increased security and the name Arimethia was still posted there on the mailbox of the apt above the tomb number 4. These claims are on par with Tabors earlier assertion that there once was a site 'let's beat the snot out of Simcha' which colleagues were never able find after diligent searching.

    • Kenneth Greifer
    • March 4, 2012

    I read somewhere that the picture next to the fish or ungentarium looks like some kind of gallows. If it is an ungentarium, and I read that they were hung up, could the gallows actually be the device they hung the ungentarium from?

    Also, if there are fish on the borders, then the person could have been a fisherman, but the other pictures could be the ungentarium and possibly the thing they hung it from.

    This is just a wild guess because no one has described what they hung them from, and I have no idea.

    Kenneth Greifer

  17. Reply

    Joe, no idea what you mean by mobs of people attaching (sic) me. Where have I ever said that? There were significant protests by orthodox groups on the first two days we began our work in 2009 and the police got involved and that is all in the film…Once we worked out an agreement with Schmidle it was fine. All that is clear in the book, so maybe you have not read it…I won't dignify your other assertions with a reply, as well as your charge far and wide that we have planted evidence.

  18. Reply

    The so-called "gallows" that appears on the museum replica is an attempt to represent what we could see–so the artisan drew what appeared, as I have noted elsewhere. The end of ossuary 5 was butted against ossuary 6–so the square like structure was cut off from our view–giving the gallows effect. That is clearly not how the ossuary looks on that panel and one has to assume their is a square "temple" like structure, common on ossuaries. See our map in my article at

  19. Reply

    Well I would begin first with it is a fish. Since we only have one other possible fish on an ossuary (the Claudius one, unprovenanced), and that one is not certain, that itself would be unusual. The Jonah part has to do with the mouth, ball/head, and stick figure. See my two articles up now on the home page of as all of this is covered there and there are closeup images of the "stick figure" and its interpretation. So far as expressions of resurrection, it is the case, of course as Meyers and Rollston point out in their articles, that Jews other than Jesus followers believed in resurrection of the dead–that is a given, but it remains the case that there is no resurrection symbol or statement on any of 650 inscribed ossuaries unless these two are the first–so that alone makes them more than "much ado about nothing." If there is a man coming out of the mouth, which I think there surely is, then we go to Jonah, and what we know of Jonah traditions among other Jews and the early Christians…again, all this is covered in my long academic article as well as in the book, with lots of footnotes and full documentation.

  20. Reply

    This whole idea of the fish oriented down making it not a fish is puzzling to me. An up-side-down tower–yes, that is a problem, but the idea that a fish has to be pointed up or to the right or left, even on a very narrow panel, is very strange and makes no sense. When the fish comes in as an unmistakable symbol, and Jonah in particular, it can be turned in any direction, there is no idea that it can't be pointing down or it is not a fish! Our understanding is that the engraver is trying to follow the Jonah text very very literally, with the key elements represented: bars of Sheol, seaweed, vomiting on the land, the Temple, etc. So far as we know there are no preexisting models of Jonah images for this person to go by, in terms of patterns or conventions. This might be a first. Which makes it all the more amazing.

    • Joan Taylor
    • March 4, 2012

    Thank you to all for comments, especially to Thomas, Chris and Stephen. I note now that in the old IAA photograph of ossuary 6, which only indicates the top of that side, the image looks like another receptacle, perhaps an incense burner, but the image is very unclear.

    James: I think you should be a little careful not to make this ASOR site into your personal blog. As for what you say, I can only leave you with your red herrings! The only fish most of us see are in the borders of the replica ossuary.

    Rami: Yes, a pointed base unguentarium would be a quality receptacle made of coloured glass. But it would actually be appropriate to have a representation of something rare and of high quality. In iconography, size often reflects centrality and emphasis in meaning, so in this case: ‘May your tomb be extremely sweet-smelling, filled greatly with costly perfume.’

    Tim: the patterning would reflect schematically the coloured glass patterning you get on unguentaria.

    Kenneth: I would tentatively suggest that the image to the right of the unguentarium in ossuary 6 is a window, with another window inside an arched recess on the short side to the left. The windows also would relate to a hope for the tomb to have nice air. Inside the window on the right, we may have the rudiments of an inner frame opened inwards (but this is only on the basis of looking at the replica). In other words there is a certain coherence in terms of iconography here.

    I think that is the best I can do. I wish everyone well in the task of a proper understanding of this tomb.

    Joan Taylor

  21. Pingback: De interpretatie van de “Jona in de vis”-afbeelding | Γεγραμμένα

    • Paul Regnier
    • March 4, 2012

    Thinking about a way of making sense of all three images from the ossuary together – could they be representations of Jewish life/worhsip?

    I.e. could the other two images be something like a Torah ark ("temple like structure'), and either a Torah shrine or an image of the Jewish temple and the Ark of the Covenant ("cross side"). For the resemblance of the "cross side" to images of the Jewish temple, see this picture of a Bar Kokhba Tetradrachm

    If so, this would make it possible that the Jonah image is actually some sort of container for the oil used for the Menorah – see the image below from the Migdal synagogue

    As previously stated, I am no expert (so would be grateful for any comments or corrections), but this interpretation would have the advantage of making all three images fit together and make sense in a first-century Jewish context.

  22. Reply

    Thanks for your input Joan. I am sorry you found my response to your proposal, which I tried to address in a serious way (on my blog, not here), unworthy of any comment or response other than dismissal and a label–though I must admit your label was rather clever. BTW, there are at least multiple orientations of fish as well as Jonah images in the catacomb images I surveyed quickly, including up, down, and sideways…seems then and now the notion of a fish is rather directionally fluid in terms of how it is portrayed.

    • Jerusalemite
    • March 4, 2012

    Joan, could you elaborate on the "hope for the tomb to have nice air"? All 1st century tombs of this kind are deep underground. Perhaps you've seen sealing stones, of the kind meant to keep the nice air out of the tomb, with windows relating to the same expression of hope?

    • Simcha
    • March 4, 2012

    I must commend Prof. JT for getting rid, once and for all, of the “fish is a tower idea.” I mean Joan Taylor, not James Tabor. Clearly, she’s a woman of authority so when she dismisses the tower and the amphora, other academics fall into line. Prof. Rollston, for example, has done the equivalent of a nephesh u-turn on that great archaeological highway giving up his theory in favor of the “unguentarium.”

    Now we have the “unguentarium” theory. Let me say from the outset that I’m not for using words that most people don’t understand. It creates the veneer of specialization, puts people off and makes them doubt their own eyes. Let’s face it, at the end of the day, “unguentarium” are what we get our wives for Valentine’s Day i.e., we’re talking perfume bottles. So the question is; is Prof. Taylor right? Is our fish a perfume bottle? I think not. Let’s look at the evidence.

    Prof. Taylor supplies three photographs. The first is a “spindle-bottle” from somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean that pre-dates our tomb by at least three centuries. So it’s not from Israel and it’s not from a 1st century Jerusalem tomb. What exactly does it have going for it? The top is thin whereas the image in our tomb has a top that looks exactly like what it is i.e., a giant fish tail.

    The second image is an Alabastron. It’s also Eastern Mediterranean, but it’s getting closer to our date. It only pre-dates our tomb by a couple of hundred years. However, I must admit that it does look more like a fish. The relevant question is; so what? I can point to hippopotamus images on ancient Egyptian tombs. I can also find Egyptian make-up kits from within 500 years of those images that are made to look like hippos. Does that mean that the hippo images on Egyptian tomb walls are not hippos? Should I now be looking at Nilotic scenes on Egyptian tombs and instead of hippos be imagining make-up kits? I don’t understand the point. You can find on Google images clouds that look like fish. Does that mean that there’s a cloud on our ossuary? Furthermore, at the end of the day, the Alabastron, which looks to be made of glass, proves the opposite of what Prof. Taylor wants to prove. The devil is in the details. Namely, the little protrusions at the top of the bottle are little for a reason – if they were longer they would break. On our image, the fins are wide at the extremities and thin at the point where they connect with the body of the fish. If it was a perfume bottle, the protrusions would snap. No one would make – or could make – a perfume bottle like that.

    As for the “bubble shape” perfume bottle, Prof. Taylor has now reached for an Italian bottle from 1st century CE. Right time, wrong country. Also, our image ends with a giant bubble. This ends in a point. So what’s the point?

    Prof. Taylor is aware that none of her perfume bottles are balancing themselves on a giant ball, as in our image. The way she deals with this is by saying that “the mysterious blob” is actually “nard” that poured out of the perfume bottle and congealed below it. Wow! Talk about a connection with Mary Magdalene; suddenly – instead of a fish – Prof. Taylor sees an alabaster jar with nard pouring out of it on our ossuary. This would be unprecedented and, next to the Jesus tomb, quite sensational. I wish it were true, but it’s not. And why would someone want to carve one on an ossuary? Prof. Taylor simply states “seeping perfume expresses an appropriate wish for a tomb.” Appropriate in what way? Is she suggesting that someone’s carving a perfume bottle on an ossuary as a way of symbolically dealing with the decay of their loved one? A bit macabre and unsubstantiated. There is no “unguentarium” image on any ossuary that I know of.

    There are, indeed, glass perfume bottles found in 1st century Jerusalem tombs. See for example:… or….. When you look at the photos, what becomes obvious is that there is no unguentarium that looks remotely like our fish.

    At the end of the day, I think there is a principle in British common law that serves us well i.e., if it quacks like a fish, and flaps like a fish, and waddles like a fish – it’s a fish!

    Simcha Jacobovici, Filmmaker

    Professor, Huntington University

  23. Pingback: Some Considerations About the Iconography on the Ossuary « The Musings of Thomas Verenna

  24. Reply

    I've enjoyed following this comments thread and particularly enjoyed Simcha's "quacks like a fish" comment. Brief comment on detail in Professor Jacobovici's post:

    "The way she deals with this is by saying that “the mysterious blob” is actually “nard” that poured out of the perfume bottle and congealed below it. Wow! Talk about a connection with Mary Magdalene; suddenly – instead of a fish – Prof. Taylor sees an alabaster jar with nard pouring out of it on our ossuary. This would be unprecedented and, next to the Jesus tomb, quite sensational. I wish it were true, but it’s not."

    — The anointing story is not connected with Mary Magdalene in any of the Gospels (Mark 14.3-9 // Matt. 26.6-13, anonymous woman; Luke 7.36-50, anonymous woman; John 12.1-11, Mary the sister of Martha). If I remember correctly, Profs. Jacobovici and Tabor speculate that Mary Magdalene and Mary the sister of Martha are the same person in the recent Jesus Discovery book, but it is worth underlining that this is speculation only.

    Sorry — I'm what they call a "details person".

    Best wishes

    Mark Goodacre (Duke University)

  25. Reply

    Perhaps this is a better metaphor to understand the problem at hand:

    (Especially pertaining to Jonah's head. Or should I say 'skull'? Wait until about 0:28 and you will see *precisely* what I mean).

    That aside, in the proper orientation, the lines of different texture are most consistent with layered patterns produced by potters and glass workers ubiquitous to the era.

    If this — as a fish — is "a first" (as Dr. Tabor calls it) even a casual observer should see a bright, red flag: If this is without precedent and we have nothing to compare it with, standard procedure is to observe extreme caution before we make any unusual or sensational claims.

    As the matter stands, we have many, many examples of pottery and other vessels on ossuaries and they look more like this image than anything else (in structure, motif, and function). With that precedent, I would feel it's the safer and more likely conclusion.

    The "Fish Hypothesis" (on the other hand) requires treating the inscription's details as a bit of a Rorschach, which flings us from the stage of scientific inquiry and thrusts us into a completely different field altogether.


    Steve "I don't see the skull" Caruso, MLIS

  26. Pingback: Talpiot Tombs Latest (Including Fish-Reorientation and Unguentaria) « Exploring Our Matrix

  27. Reply


    Your interpretation of the giagentic ungentaria is very intriguing and to the best of my knowledge unparalleled.

    You are correct, this scematic incision is not unequivocally interpreted. When we saw the image on our monitors we contemplated whether it is a depiction of any vessels, but the ball at the bottom speaks against it.

    Moreover, the Jerusalem ungentaria from the first century look very different. They have pointed end, there are no balls at the bottom, they have no handles and they are between 10-15 cm. The oversize ungentarium is not a compelling theory. After all ungentaria did not have any ritual role, but were rather practical mean to get rid of the stench. All other none-decorative depiction on ossuaries have ritual or religious meaning.

    You are also correct about the position of the fish. Traditionally fish are depicted horizontally but this is not a regular fish, if you were on the beach looking at the sea when the "big fish" vomits Jonah to the sea shore, this is the position you would have seen it, with the tail far away from you or up in the picture.

    • Tim Noonan
    • March 5, 2012

    Some impressions I'm having in regard to the "unguentarium-fish" debate. 1- Simcha's reminding us that if we entertain the possibility of an unguentarium depiction on the ossuary, we should consider both the time period style along with the geographical and or cultural area. I agree and view his opinion as strikingly important. 2- Though noticeable numbers of unguentaria have been found on the dirt floors during the time era of ossuary burials involving Jewish ritual; how many of those unguentaria were depicted as engravings on the ossuaries themselves? 3- Referencing Dr. Joan Taylor's impression that the ears or lugs of the unguentarium are what others might be seeing as fins. I see the following problems. The lugs-fins seem to long and narrow for holes that a string could loop through and thereby fit the utility purpose of carrying it about. Also, as I believe Simcha mentions those same ears-lugs look awfully easy to break. Also looking at the actual depiction of the unguentarium, it's shape, proportion and weight. The ears-lugs seem attached too far down from the mouth to string carry without tilting and tipping. I admit to being lost in regard the Dr. Taylor's congealed nard like substance description. I thought the myrrh-aloe for example would pour from the mouth. And if 2 openings would be necessary for some designs, then how would the unguentarium be put in a holder later or hung up later without spilling out? 4- Last but not least! The alleged mouth of the unguentarium looks far more bell shaped and wider than other examples I've seen. Most of the mouths of unguentaria that I've seen have the appearance which could be described by their similarity to the mouth piece of some horns. Were I looking at the actual ossuary depiction and someone asked me which I see, an unguentarium mouth or large mammal tail, I'd have to go with the tail as my answer.

    • ryan
    • March 5, 2012

    Rollston seems only too honest when he writes that the nefesh tower was "preferable to a fish". Only a fool could truly have seen a tower in that image, and what he seems to be expressing is that he'd really, really like it to be anything but a fish. I think he needs to take a few days off before posting about this stuff. His emotions are too clearly going to his head.

    The continuing summary judgments are truly depressing. It's not really true, hard as Joan Taylor may wish to make it true, that "no one else sees a fish". No one who seems to have come in unbiased has seen much reason to be certain at all of what is portrayed, but one thing I can tell Joan Taylor is that her unguentaria theory is not much more persuasive at this point than the fish theory. When the pottery theory was left at amphora by the Italian professor a few days ago, it was more graphically persuasive, though perhaps less topically so.

    It may require other excavations to settle the argument. Not satisfying, but much more scholarly.

    I find this artwork a pretty ramshackle scaffolding to build a theory of Jesus tombs on. But the scholars who think this don't seem content with this pretty defensible position. They seem to have a need to proclaim "we know exactly what this is and exactly why it's a boring find that can't teach us anything." In this, they're clearly wrong, and the longer they continue to make such claims, the less credibility they have.

    • Tim Noonan
    • March 5, 2012

    I have a request to make to Dr. Joan Taylor and or any poster or reader at this site. If you know of any unguentarium artfully depicted on any Jewish ossuary of this time period, please attempt to have it uploaded here through Dr. Taylor or provide the rest of us with a link or links so that we can view it. Or! Even if any of you know of such an artful depiction as described on any other medium or of any other time period, again please provide us with the source.

    For example, if there are 2000 Jewish ossuaries recovered from this time period and say 600 have inscription or artful depiction or artful decoration, then how many of them include an unguentarium on the ossuary. 1, 5, 6, 20 or none? If there are 1 or more we'd like to see them. If there are none, then this being one would be unprecedented.

    Interestingly, if the debated Talpiot-B ossuary depiction is of Jonah and the Whale, it too would be unprecedented. Though unprecedented with justification! Why? Because this being a tomb say 20AD to 70AD and fairly soon after the death of Jesus, it would be reasonable to have that time era as the right time era to depict resurrection using Jonah and the Whale because that would fit exactly to Jesus own prophecy concerning himself. It's my understanding that artists did not depict Jesus resurrect(ed) in a form similar to a man until many years later. And that no artist has ever shown Jesus in the process of resurrect(ing). Except through one and only one depiction! And what depiction would that be? Jonah and the Whale!

  28. Reply

    I do a bit of fishing. Allow me to comment as a person who has had hundreds of fish in his hands. This simply looks like a fish. I think we need to take a serious look at the back fins of the fish image. You will notice that they are asymmetrical. Many fish have this feature of asymmetrical fins, they are called heterocercal, if the largest part of the fin is on top and reverse heterocercal if the largest part points downward. I haven't seen anyone propose that a tower or perfume bottle would have such a visual appearance. So, it is clear to me that this is the image of a fish, drawn by someone who knows what a fish looks like. Maybe the artist did a bit of fishing too.

    • Paul Regnier
    • March 5, 2012

    Tim – Antonio Lombatti has posted four examples of amphorae depicted on Jewish ossuaries of the period.

  29. Pingback: Places to Visit on A Trip to Israel « Against Jebel al-Lawz

    • Nicole
    • March 6, 2012

    Perfect illustrations that the fish couldn't be an amphorae.

  30. Reply

    I'm with those who see a vessel of some kind – not sea-going either. I was impressed by Antonio Lombatti's thoughts about amphorae, but the shape and handles are not quite right. Joan Taylor's suggestion is important, and the handles of the first example are particularly suggestive (and I don't think objections re size are so valid in this medium). What I don't find so persuasive on that identification is the wide mouth of the vessel. These small jars for ointment are designed to keep their contents in, not let them out.

    I have suggested myself that it's more like a krater – these vary somewhat especially regarding how handles are displayed, and some posts have shown "volute" kraters with high swirling handles. This is, I suspect, more like a "calyx" krater. More at my blog:

  31. Reply

    Tim Thank you for posting the amphora illustrations. It is indeed very different from the Talpiot rendering. It lucks the typical handles and the ball at the bottom is missing.

    When analyzing this depiction one cannot ignor any sections. How do you explain the ball association with the upper part.

    I am not surprised that you have never seen a fish in this position. I have never seen a fish vomitting a human being alive, I bet that nobody else have seen this. Therefore, this is not a daily scene and not regular fish. So why to search for regular features in an unregular scene?

    • Kenneth Greifer
    • March 6, 2012

    I don't know archaeology or art, but I am an expert at one thing that I think is relevant to this subject. I draw very bad and as an expert in bad drawing, I have to say that the artist who drew this fish, amphora, or unguentarium was a really bad artist who might have been drawing (inscribing?) from memory. The amphora on the ossuaries Antonio Lombatti posted about were drawn by great artists who made realistic looking pictures. The one on this ossuary is drawn by someone like me.

    Even if I saw an object a million times, from memory or even looking at the object, I would draw it with all of the parts the wrong size and shape. The basic pattern of an amphora with the round thing at the bottom is the best a bad artist can do. I think this is a badly drawn amphora probably done from memory by someone who thinks he or she can draw good. Even if it was a fish, I don't think the scales are realistic looking, but are what a really bad artist or kid would draw.

    I know that the people here are highly educated scholars and experts, but you don't have to be an expert to recognize a really bad drawing from thousands of years ago. (Maybe I am wrong about that?) I actually feel kind of over-qualified by my own lack of artistic skills. Like they say, it takes one to know one, and I know bad art. Is it realistic to assume the person who did this work had to be good at it?

    Kenneth Greifer

  32. Reply

    I'd be interested to hear more about how people think the alleged "big fish tail" on the side of the ossuary coheres with the other interpretations. In other words, if this is a "big fish tail", clearly it lends credence to the fish interpretation. If, on the other hand, it is a vase, it detracts from the credibility of the other illustration being a fish.

    Incidentally, there is an error on the Jesus Discovery website with respect to the labelling of those pictures —… . These are from 1981 and not 1980, aren't they? I realize that my track record in getting errors and inaccuracies on the Talpiot Tomb websites corrected has not been too promising so far, though.

    • Tim Noonan
    • March 6, 2012

    Paul, thank you for posting those 4 examples via Antonio Lombatti. I'll study-compare them with the Patio Tomb depiction. I'm curious if Antonio fixed a date-location with these?

    • Tim Noonan
    • March 6, 2012

    Rami, I didn't post the 4 amphorae. Paul did. My curiosity was just how common such depictions were during the time period that included the lives and death of early Christians. Then if examples emerged I wanted to compare them to the Patio Tomb depiction now under scrutiny by some specialists.

  33. Reply

    Thanks Mark, I will have the Web guy fix it…definitely 1981 on that tomb as I think all we have published and put up makes clear. 1980 was the "Jesus" tomb. Anything else you notice please pass it on…

    • John
    • March 6, 2012

    In reading Jonah Chapter 2 it states: "To the bottoms of [the] mountains I went down" after "the weeds were wound around my head". So rather than Jonah being vomitted out of the great fish could this be a depiction of him being swallowed and taken down as the scripture states to the bottoms of the mountains? This would make sense with the big fish pointing down and the little fish swimming above.

    The next verse in Jonah talks about "As for the earth, its bars were upon me for time indefinite" Which there are bars that are seen in the next panel on the ossuary.

    Is there nothing on the back panel or was it not possible to view?

    • Paul Regnier
    • March 7, 2012

    Tim – "Second Temple Jewish ossuaries", according to Lombatti's blog, so same time period as the Talpiot ossuary.

  34. Pingback: Early Christian Tombs Discussion–Continued « Larry Hurtado's Blog

    • Tim
    • March 7, 2012

    John's comments on the Story Of Jonah are very interesting. Causes me to read again the story and entertain his views.

    • Kenneth Greifer
    • March 8, 2012

    I have another possible explanation. Maybe it is an amphora with wine in it, so it has a cork stopper which is what I read they used to use for wine containers. Maybe the cork stopper has an unusual fish tail shape to make it easier to hold and pull or wiggle it out of the top of the container. I don't know how they removed corks before corkscrews were invented.

    Kenneth Greifer

    • Tim Noonan
    • March 8, 2012

    This fish and additional depiction on the same outer wall of the same ossuary is obviously a message that the artist renders as significantly important. The artist added the border and additional fish for a reason. It's (primitive) style possibly makes it more difficult to analyse. But that doesn't detract from the fact that the artist is sending us a graphic message that's meaningful.

    The more I read Chapter 2 of Jonah the more interesting this ossuary becomes. Jonah's head entangled with seaweed protruding from the mouth of the fish with his stick torso still inside. Then next to the depiction is another depiction of what appears to be an inanimate building structure. Referencing this scene to Chapter 2:4, Jonah speaks of looking 'Toward thy holy temple.' In verse 5 he mentions weeds wrapped about his head. In verse 6 he speaks of going down to the bottoms of the mountains and mentions the 'earth with her bars.' In verse 7 he says "and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple," again referencing a temple. The artist is telling us a story. And fully expects us to understand it. Possibly some of the best clues are in the story itself.

    • Don Griffith
    • March 9, 2012

    I've very much enjoyed following the discourse here. Although I'm a layman, doesn't anyone else view the "submerged" tail/fish (on the right side of the "Jonah" ossuary) as simply half a krater, amphora or unguentarium that the artist didn't finish? On the 1981 photo of the side of the ossuary one can (at least my untrained eye) plainly see what appears to be a handle on the left lip/rim of the vessel (if, indeed, the carving is some sort of container), which arcs up slightly, then down to the body of the vessel, much like the handle one would expect on a krater or amphora. This is especially apparent in photos 10 of 13 & 11 of 13 on the jesusdiscovery website (under photos & graphics/findings photos & graphics), which can be enlarged by clicking on them to easily see the outline of the handle to which I'm referring. The outline of the handle to is faint, but fairly apparent, especially at the left rim moving slighltly up and to the left as well as the portion of the handle that would be connected to the body, which appears to rise up from the left body toward the left at about a 45 degree angle. There also appears to be a similar, but fainter handle on the right side rising up from the body in a fashion symmetrical to the "handle" on the left, although I don't see a similar stem on the right rim.

    In addition, instead of being a picture of a submerged fish, might the entire right side carving simply be unfinished? For example, not only is the vessel half-drawn, the border carving also appears to stop at around the same level as the bottom of the fish/vessel. Could the artist have simply stopped–perhaps started on the side first, the chose to draw the more elaborate version on the front?

    Furthermore, if one closely examines photo 5 of 13 (the "Fish in the margins" detail photo)–which also captures the upper left "tail" portion of the front carving everyone has focused on (and again enlarged by clickiing on it) you can see one and possibly two long lines that, while they may be deep, somewhat parallel scratches, look strikingly similar to the beginnings of the handle depicted in photo 5. It seems more than coincidence that such a mark would find itself on the drawings of both left rims.

  35. Reply

    Thanks, Don, for this great observation. I've taken the liberty of blogging about it at… . I've acknowledged you in the post.

  36. Reply

    Don, thanks for your comments. This is a difficult one to figure out as, unfortunately, all we have to go on is the 1981 photo. When we zoomed in and tried lighten and darken the the lines (as in the close up on the web site) we did see the sharply angled marking on the left side but it does not appear to be attached or part of the image. On the right side there is a much more widened mark, almost like a curve. We were not able to tell if these were deliberate markings or scratches. The image, whatever, it is, seems to be unfinished, much like the scratched in rosette on the MARA rosette, but it seemed clear to us that the person doing this wanted to portray only "half" of something, even though he/she began at the top of the ossuary (you can see the border if you zoom in) and there is plenty of room to complete an image–if it is a amphora. After three rows of the grid pattern you have the blank space. That led us to the possibility that it was more likely a half-fish, intended to indicate its diving into the water, but that interpretation was obviously connected to what we consider to be a clear Jonah/fish image on the front, with the "bars" or entrance motif on the other end.

  37. Reply

    Wow, this may turn out to be the worlds biggest rorshach test. Without getting into details as to which lines mean what, I think all we can say is that there are lines, scratches, abrasions, holes, etc all over the place, that would come and go under various lighting conditions, which may or may not be purposeful and have meaning. I personally don't see handles, but I can see how others might. I am still going with the half-fish. I just don't think we are going to get very far if the debate gets bogged down in all of these marks. So, I think we are better served by 1) trying to focus on the big picture where we can and 2) suggest that we would all be best served by inducing the local religious authorities to let us in the tombs for high quality, well controlled (e.g. RTI) photography.

    What is the big picture? We have extraordinary images on an extraordinary ossuary in an extraordinary tomb, next to another extraordinary tomb. It could all be chance or part of a larger story. I personally am going with the latter, even if all of the details aren't clear.

    • Don Griffith
    • March 12, 2012

    Happy to have contributed to the dialogue on this remarkable find. I agree with Jerry on the "rershach test." A hurdle for interpreting any image, let alone one from an old photo, is to recognize one's own biases and inclinatiosns. I'll let the experts duke out the contextual interpretation.

    I also agree with James that the side image seems unfinished, itself remarkable to me, given the large number of bones in the ossuary (so presumably used over a somehwat longer period) and the care with which the front and other side were decorated (albeit by an untrained hand–a family member as James points out in his article–and not an artisan).

    It would be interesting to know the relative frequency of other ossuraries used for multiple persons, whether any were similarly highly, yet crudely decorated, and their locations/status within their respective tombs.

    • K. Samuel
    • March 12, 2012

    I was considering the evidence put forth by Dr. Tabor and others who have opposed the idea and no one seems to be asking the right questions. First of all only 2 of 7 ossuaries have "Christian" imagery on them, yet it is described as a "Christian Tomb". Isn't it conceivable that only 2 members of this family were Judeo-Christian?I can accept their theory as plausible if the tomb itself showed Christian themes or more of the ossuaries had Christian symbols on them. Compared to the evidence found at the Dominus Flevit, the "patio tomb has less striking correlations to names associated with the Jesus movement. The Talpiot tomb has no "Christian" iconography or symbols yet it was supposedly used repeatedly by the earliest followers to bury members of the Jesus Family. Has any information about the Greek inscription on the tomb wall ever been discussed by Tabor or Jacobbvici? It's existence is mentioned briefly on the documentary but never discussed again.

    My other problem with the theory is that some of the major early followers of Jesus are buried elsewhere. James the brother and 1st leader after Jesus is not in the Tomb (10th ossuary not missing according to Gibson) and Simon of Kleopas cousin or half/brother of Jesus are not featured in the tomb even though they are both leaders of the movement and known to have died in Jerusalem according to Josephus and Eusebius. Others who are notable by their absence but appear elsewhere (Dominus Flevit) are Mary, Martha and Lazarus and Simon son of Jonah (Peter) who are all close friends of Jesus and should be featured in the "Patio Tomb" if we expect that his closest followers would want to be as close to Jesus as possible. Maybe if more names of gospel personalities were associated with the "patio tomb" it could be rightly described as an early "Christian" burial. Otherwise I can only concede that 2 members of this family may have believed in or followed Jesus.

  38. Reply

    I recall that in Hachlili's book Jewish Funerary Customs, she has a few pages on deliberately unfinished ossuaries. I don't have the book to hand (I'd have to go to the library), but if anyone does they might like to check whether it's relevant to the "half-fish." I can't really recall what she says, so it might not be relevant at all, but might be enlightening.

    • benkeshet
    • March 24, 2012


    Possible alternative to unguentaria?

    After looking at the image of the ossuary's side,

    the first thought that came to me was that the vessel is a wide-mouthed "mizrak" used in the temple to first catch sacrifical blood, and then to dash it on the altar (Numbers 7 mentions them). Here is a modern reproduction of a large mizrak by the Temple Institute.

    Mizrak's are said to have been made so that they cannot be set down, but rather must be held and continually agitated to keep the blood from coagulating. That might explain the ball at the bottom of the ossuary image.

    I have not read any interpretation of the rectangular object beside the vessel in associated blogs, but it reminded me of the altar, on which the blood would be dashed. So a mizrak and the altar perhaps?

    The "half-fish" object might be a meal offering vessel, similar to the modern reproduction:

    If so, perhaps the ossuary was of a cohen involved in Temple activities?

    Best wishes

Leave a Comment

Sign in to view all ASOR Blog content!
If you have not set up a username and password for the ASOR Blog, please close this box by clicking anywhere on the screen then go to the Friends of ASOR option in the menu above. If you have forgotten your password, please click the Forgot Login Password option in the above menu.