Montana State University

MSU archaeologist has long history of digs in Israel

March 25, 2002 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU Research Office

Susan Cohen   High-Res Available

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Rolling a stone in front of a rock-cut tomb was common during the time of Christ, says a Montana State University-Bozeman archaeologist who's spent the last 15 summers in Israel.

No one knows exactly how the stone looked that was rolled in front of Jesus' tomb, but they generally looked like wheels without spokes and came in all different sizes, according to Susan Cohen, assistant professor in religious studies. She has stood in front of one that easily stood 6 1/2-feet tall.

Tombs during Jesus' time were often cut into cliffs, and the body, wrapped in linen or a shroud, was placed in a recessed area or on a bench against the wall, Cohen continued. Some tombs had pillared facades on the outside, but most were plain inside. Some had multiple chambers.

"Almost everybody was buried in these kind of chambers," Cohen said.

She added, though, that the bodies of paupers or lepers might have been tossed into earthen graves.

Some tombs from the time of Christ contained ossuaries or boxes made out of rock, Cohen said. When a person had been dead for a while, their bones might be removed from the tomb's shelf and placed in these boxes for a secondary burial. The ossuaries might or might not contain inscriptions.

Cohen joined the MSU faculty this fall after spending a year as a United States Information Agency fellow at the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem. A graduate of Harvard University, she has excavated at various sites in Israel since 1987 and has a book coming out the first week of April. The book, published by Eisenbrauns, describes how Egypt viewed and influenced the urbanization and growth of Canaanite settlements during the Middle Bronze Age.

"I am delighted to welcome Susan Cohen to our Religious Studies faculty; she brings an expertise on the Middle East that ranges from ancient to contemporary, from text to politics," said Lynda Sexson, professor of humanities. "Dr. Cohen enables us to expand the Religious Studies curriculum to include her new courses, ‛Religion, Conflict and Politics' and ‛Religion and Society in Ancient Egypt.'"

Cohen's excavations have mostly been of Philistine sites that were previously occupied by Canaanites during the Bronze age. Her most recent dig was at Ashkelon, one of five capital cities of the Philistines. Located about an hour south of Tel Aviv along the Mediterranean Sea, Ashkelon was occupied continually for 6,000 years.

"It's like a 3-D jigsaw puzzle working backward through time. You have to want to think that way," Cohen said about the site that's been disturbed by construction, earthquakes and vandals.

The Ashkelon dig covers about 50 acres, and Cohen's portion covers 600 or 700 square meters. Her site is currently about four meters below topsoil and contains a Canaanite settlement and tombs.

Those tombs are 1,500 to 2,000 years older than tombs from the time of Christ and reveal a different approach to death, Cohen said. The Canaanite tombs, for example, contain jumbles of grave goods off to the sides. The Canaanites laid out a body with items like pottery, weapons and jewelry. Then when someone else died, the goods were swept aside.

"It's hard to say what the belief was, but clearly, that was acceptable," Cohen said.

Cohen plans to return to Israel this summer. Besides doing research for her second book, she hopes to head her own excavation. Most of the large excavations are temporarily closed because of the unstable political situation, but Cohen said her site would be small and involve only five professional archaeologists. She doesn't plan to bring volunteers.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or