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’s impossible to perform traditional bone analyses on ancient remains.

Discovery of the Tomb of the Shroud

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 is located at the foot of Mount Zion in Akeldama, Jerusalem. It’s one of more than 70 tombs in the area, however, this tomb is unique. In it investigators found a fragment of a degraded shroud and a clump of human hair among the skeletal remains. Radiocarbon dating of the textile confirmed that the tomb was more than 2000 years old (between 1-50AD).

The tomb contained a textile fragment

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 were reburied in a pit, niche or stone ossuary (a bone box).

Remains in the Tomb of the Shroud were all buried in these secondary burial niches, except for one skeleton (which will be referred to as SC1 from here on). SC1 was still in a primary loculus, along with a degraded piece of textile and hair.

This is highly unusual since the high levels of humidity in Jerusalem usually prevent the preservation of any organic material. However, 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.

Two sections of the tomb sealed off?

It’s possible these individuals succumbed to an infectious disease, and the remains were sealed off to stop the spread of disease. Tuberculosis (caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis) and leprosy (caused by Mycobacterium leprae) are the two most likely contagious diseases that would prompt sealing of the burial niches.

Often changes in bone structure can identify both tuberculosis and leprosy. But, the looting had damaged all of the skeletons, making traditional morphological analyses 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)

Therefore, 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 analyzed for the presence of the two bacteria. Mycobacterium tuberculosis DNA was present in samples from all three skeletons in the two sealed sections (SC1 and the two infants). It wasn’t present in any of the other samples from the tomb.

Mycobacterium leprae DNA was also present in the sample from the skeleton SC1. Tuberculosis and leprosy infections were generally fatal during the first century. Thus, DNA analyses support the initial hypothesis. 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.

Were the skeletons biologically related?

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.

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MtDNA is used to trace maternal ancestry. Both males and females have mtDNA, however 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.

Three regions of mtDNA can be analyzed: two non-coding regions, HVR1 and HVR2, and the coding region. Partial sequences were generated for both HVR1 and HVR2 regions from the remains. However, only the HVR1 profiles were consistent.

The analysis identified seven different mtDNA profiles across the 11 individuals. This indicated 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.

Some of the skeletons showed no maternal relationship to other skeletons. However, it’s possible that there are paternal links. This points out one distinct disadvantage of using mtDNA analyses, as it only detects maternal relationships.

Does your mtDNA profile date back to first-century Jerusalem?

The Tomb of the Shroud is a unique discovery. It’s the only first-century Jerusalem tomb to contain a textile fragment. It’s also the first to be examined using molecular analyses. DNA 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.