The burial cave was hewn in the chalk bedrock of a steep northeasterly slope that descends toward the Sea of Galilee. It is located south of Tel Raqqat, c. 2 km from the northern end of the Roman–Byzantine city of Tiberias and c. 1 km north of the previously documented clusters of tombs and mausolea (Stepansky 1999; Betzer 2013). Due to the hard basalt rock on which the Roman–Byzantine city was built, it was impossible to quarry tombs in its vicinity. Instead, hundreds of graves were dug and built: Most burials were pit graves excavated into the ground, sarcophagi excavated in the ground or placed on the surface, and magnificent burial structures (mausolea). Perhaps, the current location was chosen for the chalk, which was easy to quarry.
The cave was severely damaged by development work. It comprised three meticulously hewn chambers (Fig. 2) aligned on an east–west axis. The eastern chamber served as an entrance hall, while the middle and western chambers were used for burial. The finds from the cave are dated to the first–third centuries CE.
The Eastern Chamber (width 5 m) was almost destroyed entirely by development work, and only the floor and parts of the walls were preserved. Fragments of fresco-covered white plaster (Fig. 3) were discovered on the walls, comprising dark red, red, yellow and black geometric designs seemingly characteristic of the second century CE. They show that the chamber was decorated to its full height and seems to have been a luxurious roofed vestibule to the burial cave. An opening hewn in its western wall led to the tomb’s main chamber. This opening had been damaged by development work, and rubble was found beside it, including carefully dressed basalt items: a threshold with a hinge socket, two jambs, and a heavy stone door with stone hinges and a through-hole (Fig. 4), via which a hand could be inserted to reach a locking device fixed in a socket on the inner side of the door.
The Main Chamber (4 × 5 m; Fig. 5). The chamber had a leveled ceiling and six burial niches (length c. 2 m each): three in the northern wall and three in the southern wall. The middle niche in both walls had an arched ceiling, whereas the niches on either side had leveled ceilings. A stone shelf (height 0.4 m) was hewn along the chamber walls and before the niche entrances. Two ex situ ossuaries were found on the shelf along the southern and western walls. One is made of limestone and bears a Greek inscription (below), while the other is ceramic and decorated with a geometric design. Two large triangular recesses for oil lamps were cut in the center of the chamber’s northern and southern walls, above the burial niches. A burial trough with a shelf around its upper part (Fig. 6) for placing covering slabs was hewn in the base of the northwestern niche; other niches were probably equipped with similar troughs but had been damaged by robbers. A shallow rectangular recess above the northwestern niche contained a limestone tablet with a tabula ansata in relief bearing a Greek inscription that probably names the head of the family (below). In the chamber’s western wall, between two arched windows, one with a frame for a burial slab, an arched opening was installed, leading to the western chamber (Fig. 7). It had an indented rectangular frame for a stone door and a socket for a locking device on its northern side.
In burial caves, it was customary to place paterfamilias’s (head of the family) grave opposite the entrance, which in this cave would have been located in the central burial chamber’s western wall. When the need for an additional burial chamber presented itself, the paterfamilias’s bones were moved to the northwestern niche, as indicated by the abovementioned inscription. This interpretation is supported by the western opening’s design, which is similar to that of a burial niche, and by remnants of a frame for a niche-closing stone in the opening’s upper part. It seems that opening the western burial chamber entailed removing the lower part of this frame and the shelf in front of it. Similarly, it is probable that the windows on either side of the entrance were originally niches used as bone repositories or for the burial of children.
The Western Chamber (4 × 5 m; Fig. 8). A concrete spill from the development work had flooded the chamber and limited its documentation. It was quarried on a lower level than the main chamber and was probably accessed via one or two steps. The chamber had a rounded ceiling lower than that of the main chamber and nine niches: three in the northern wall, three in the southern wall and three in the western wall. Large triangular recesses for oil lamps (Fig. 9) were cut near the ceiling in the northern wall and on either side of the opening in the eastern wall.
The Finds. Most of the finds were retrieved from the main chamber, including two ossuaries, a base of a glass vessel and numerous potsherds. One ossuary is made of limestone and has a socket for a lid. It was carefully dressed with a fine-toothed chisel, and a Greek inscription was engraved on one of its longer sides (below). The other ossuary is ceramic and elliptical, like a small bathtub. On the upper part of its long sides are reliefs depicting a circle with two rays emanating from it—possibly an imitation of ring handles. Most potsherds belong to types produced at the Kefar Hananya and Shihin workshops, which are well-known from the Roman period Galilee, and date from the second–third centuries CE. However, two types that date from the first century CE are particularly significant. They challenge the suggestion that the burial in ossuaries only reached the Galilee after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, or even after the Bar Kokhba Revolt—a hundred years or more after the custom appeared in Judea—presumably by refugees from Judea. This late date is incommensurable with the finds discovered in the cave at Tiberias, whose use is dated to the first–third centuries CE. The burial cave probably belonged to a local family and was used for several generations from the first century CE onwards; it is unlikely that such a fundamental change in the style of burial would have occurred during its use.
The Inscriptions. Two Greek inscriptions were found in the cave. One was carefully engraved on the side of the stone ossuary. It comprises red-painted capital letters— ΤΥΡΑΝΝΙΔΟΣ — and translates as “(of) TYRANNIS.” Tyrannis is a woman’s name rarely found in the region, and the paleographic style suggests that the inscription dates from the first or second century CE.
The second inscription comprises shallowly engraved letters on a limestone tabula ansata discovered above the northwestern burial niche. While the left part of the tablet is broken, the remainder reads: - - - ΜΟΥ ΠΑΤΡΟΣ. The letters of the first partially preserved word are larger than those of the other; they constitute the end of a name and read “MOS,” denoting a possessive suffix. The second word is PATROS—i.e., father—and is also in the possessive form, suggesting the inscription be read as “(the tomb) of [name], our father.” The inscription, therefore, records the burial of the head of a family by his sons. Notably, possessive suffixes are widespread among Greek and Latin names (e.g., Philodemos). However, the ossuary burials suggest that the cave was used by a Jewish population, implying that the inscribed name is an adaptation of a Hebrew or Aramaic name to the Greek grammatical form, like Naumos (“of Nahum”) or Abramos (“of Abraham”). Interestingly, the inscription was engraved by an unskilled hand, probably written by relatives of the deceased who were literate in Greek.
This rock-hewn burial cave discovered during archaeological inspection is one of a handful at Tiberias. Its location was probably dictated by the chalk rock outcrop that presented an opportunity for easy quarrying. Perhaps, it was also encouraged by the site’s spectacular vista and proximity to a nearby main road. Based on the pottery, the ossuary burials and the entrance’s decorative style, the cave was probably hewn in the first century CE and remained in use throughout the second–third centuries CE. The cave had two phases, with the addition of the western burial chamber constituting the later phase. The fresco decoration in the vestibule may also be attributed to the later phase. The cave’s dimensions and the excellent quality of its chiseling and decoration demonstrate that its owners were wealthy, the ossuaries indicate that they were Jewish, and the inscriptions show they were literate in Greek. Since the rural population around the city in this period spoke mainly Aramaic, the cave must have belonged to a family from Tiberias.