Violence in Hasmonean Judea: Skeletal evidence of a massacre from 2nd‐st century BCE Jerusalem

Jenna Dittmar* (Corresponding Author), Yossi Nagar, Kfir Arbiv, Tehillah Lieberman , Piers D Mitchell

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


During a salvage excavation conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority, a mass grave containing the skeletal remains from 124 individuals, many with evidence of weapon injuries, was discovered in a water cistern outside the Old City of Jerusalem. Radiocarbon dates derived from human bone and the date of the material finds suggest the skeletal remains date to the end of the 2nd century or the beginning of the 1st century BCE. The aim of this research is to analyze the weapon injuries in order to reconstruct the nature and context of this violence. The human skeletal remains from 23 individuals recovered from the cistern were selectively retained and examined macroscopically in a laboratory setting. Silicone casts of selected weapon injuries (n=5) were analyzed using scanning electron microscopy. Numerous examples of peri-mortem blunt- and sharp-force trauma were observed including evidence that at least 16 individuals were decapitated. The extent and nature of the observed injuries as well as the evidence of their haphazard deposition into the cistern suggest that these individuals were the victims of a massacre. As a highly visible act of violence, massacres are often used as a mechanism for social control. When contextualized, this skeletal assemblage is most likely evidence of a massacre that occurred during the reign of the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus. This is the first archaeological evidence for the use of socially sanctioned violence to legitimize the Hasmonean state and to maintain social control at the end of the 2nd century-early 1st century BCE.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)731-745
Number of pages15
JournalInternational journal of osteoarchaeology
Issue number4
Early online date18 Jan 2022
Publication statusPublished - 11 Aug 2022

Bibliographical note

Partial funding for JD to complete this research was provided by Darwin College, University of Cambridge. The authors would like to thank Craig Cessford of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit for his assistance with the radiocarbon dates, David Errickson of Cranfield University for aiding in the analysis of the tool marks, and the reviewers for their comments on this manuscript. The excavation was carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority (Permit number A7929) and supported by the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design.

Data Availability Statement

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.


  • mass grave
  • weapon injuries
  • indiscriminate violence
  • decapitation
  • Alexander Jannaeus


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