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Did you know that a burial garment was discovered in the Tomb of the Shroud?

Analyzing the skeletal remains from a first century Jewish tomb

The Tomb of the Shroud is one of a kind – in it archeologists found the only preserved fragment of a shroud (burial garment) from the first century in Jerusalem. This is the story of the remains found in the Tomb of Shroud, and how DNA tests can fill a need when it proves impossible to perform traditional bone analyses on ancient remains.

In the summer of 2000, an archeologist and a professor took five students on an educational hike. They were examining abandoned first-century tombs in an area known as the “Field of Blood” when they stumbled upon a freshly robbed three-level tomb, cut into the bedrock. This was how the aptly named Tomb of the Shroud was discovered, quite by accident (for a personal account of the discovery, read Dr James Tabor’s blog). The Tomb of the Shroud located at the foot of Mount Zion in Akeldama, Jerusalem, is one of more than 70 tombs in the area. But this tomb is unique, because a fragment of a degraded shroud and a clump of human hair were found among the skeletal remains. Radiocarbon dating of the textile confirmed that the tomb was more than 2000 years old (between 1-50AD).

In the first century, Jewish people generally buried the dead in a primary burial site, known as a loculus, until the body decomposed. Then about a year later, the bones would be reburied in a pit, niche or stone ossuary (a bone box). The remains discovered in the Tomb of the Shroud were all found in these secondary burial niches, except for one skeleton (which will be referred to as SC1 from here on). The degraded textile and hair remains were discovered with skeleton SC1 in a primary loculus. This is highly unusual since the high levels of humidity in Jerusalem usually prevent the preservation of any organic material, but the loculus with SC1 and another niche containing two infant skeletons were sealed off with a white plaster (which had remained sealed until the looting). This was an uncommon burial practice for Jewish people from the first century.

The investigators hypothesized that these individuals may have succumbed to an infectious disease, so their remains were sealed off to stop the spread of disease. Often changes in bone structure can be used to identify diseases like tuberculosis (caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis) or leprosy (caused by Mycobacterium leprae). These are two of the most likely contagious diseases that would have prompted the burial niches to be sealed. However, the looting of the tomb had caused extensive damage to the minimal remains found for each skeleton, meaning that traditional morphological analyses of the bones were near impossible, aside from suspected pathology on a phalanx (from the hand).

Photograph of the phalanx with suspected pathology
The phalanx with suspected pathology. (Figure from Matheson CD et al. (2009) PLoS ONE)

Instead the scientists opted for genetic analyses, making the Tomb of the Shroud the first ever Jesus-era tomb to be examined using molecular techniques. DNA from the bone, textile and environmental samples from throughout the tomb were tested for the presence of the two bacteria. Mycobacterium tuberculosis DNA was detected from all three skeletons in the two sealed sections (SC1 and the two infants), but nowhere else in the tomb. Mycobacterium leprae DNA was also detected from the skeleton SC1. Tuberculosis and leprosy infections were generally fatal during the first century. This meant the DNA analyses supported the initial hypothesis that these two sections were sealed off from other parts of the tomb to contain the diseases. Risk of infection is also the likely explanation for why the skeleton SC1 was never moved from the primary loculus to a secondary location.

With the mystery of the sealed tombs solved, investigators next focused on finding out whether the Tomb of the Shroud was a family tomb using mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) analyses. MtDNA is used to trace maternal ancestry, as although both males and females have mtDNA, only females pass on their mtDNA to the next generation. The strict maternal inheritance, the high copy number (hundreds of copies per cell) and the rapid rate of evolution make mtDNA the most suitable and informative for the analysis of ancient human remains.

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Three regions of the mtDNA genome that can be analyzed: two non-coding regions known as HVR1 and HVR2, and the coding region. Partial sequences were obtained for both HVR1 and HVR2 regions from the remains, but consistent results were only acquired for the HVR1 region. The analysis identified seven different mtDNA profiles across the 11 individuals, indicating that several of the skeletal remains were maternally related. DNA tests therefore confirm the theory that the Tomb of the Shroud was indeed a family tomb housing several generations. Even though some of the skeletons showed no maternal relationship to other skeletons, it’s possible that there are paternal links, pointing out a distinct disadvantage of using mtDNA as only maternal relationships can be determined by this technique.

The Tomb of the Shroud is a unique discovery, as it is the only first-century Jerusalem tomb to contain a textile fragment and the first to be examined using molecular analyses. These molecular analyses identified seven different mtDNA profiles from the Jewish population during the first century in Jerusalem. If you have taken the DNA Maternal Ancestry Test, you can now compare your mtDNA against these seven profiles to see if your mtDNA profile dates back to first-century Jerusalem.

Reference:

Matheson CD et al. (2009) Molecular exploration of the first-century Tomb of the Shroud in Akeldama, Jerusalem. PLoS One. 4(12):e8319.

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