2,000-year-old Leper Found in Jerusalem

Two years ago, archaeologist Dr. Shimon Gibson, from the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, led a group of students to burial caves in Jerusalem's Hinnom Valley. During the outing, the participants noticed some broken shards from a sarcophagus. "These caught my eye, because they appeared to point to grave theft; I decided to go inside the cave, and take a look," Gibson says. "There was a burial hole inside the cave; when I looked inside it, I couldn't believe what I saw. Lying on the ground, there were some remains of cloth. I grasped immediately that this was a shroud; and if it turned out that the shroud was from the Second Temple period, which is the age of burial caves in the region, then this would be the first time that a 2,000-year-old shroud has been discovered around Jerusalem."

Winter rainfall in the Jerusalem area normally enters grave sites, preventing the preservation of old cloth materials. Apparently, a crack in a rock on the side of the cave where Gibson found the material kept the rain water away from the cloth.

Apart from the cloth, some bone remains were scattered in the cave. Gibson sent some material samples for carbon 14 dating. The tests indicated that the samples date from the first decades of the first century of the common era.

After the dates were established, restoration work began. A piece of the material was relayed to Orit Shamir at the Antiquities Authority, for testing and restoration. By using regular and electronic microscopes, Shamir established that the material was composed partly of cotton and linseed.

"This sort of cloth was not made here during this period, and so it's plausible to assume that it was imported; and that suggests the deceased person was wealthy," Gibson explains. "The grave's location supports this hypothesis. The grave is located on the lower side of Mount Zion, where Jerusalem's aristocratic elite of the time dwelled."

Tests of hair samples, conducted by researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Faculty of Medicine, corroborated these conclusions about the deceased person. The tests established that the man did not have lice, suggesting that he upheld standards of hygiene observed among the upper classes of the time.

Tests of bone samples suggested to researchers that the burial cave was used by dozens of members of a family for several generations. Germ remains were found on the bones, and while tests of these germs indicated that three family members died of consumption, there were also intriguing traces of leprosy. Researchers speculate that while consumption must have been what killed members of the family, leprosy weakened their immune systems and set the stage for their death by other diseases. They also hypothesize that the man whose remains Gibson discovered was buried in a special hole because his family wanted to keep him isolated, as a leprosy victim.

"Up until now, the oldest archaeological findings of leprosy were from the Byzantine period, in the fifth century C.E.," says Gibson. "This is the oldest archaeological finding of leprosy in the Middle East. Leprosy is mentioned in the Bible, but until now, we could not be sure whether these biblical references are to the disease we know as leprosy, or to something else."