Infant Jar Burials in Ancient Canaan


Megan Sauter
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WASHINGTON, D.C. (July 9, 2019)—In ancient Canaan, many placed their dead babies in storage jars. They were then buried under the walls and floors of a house or, occasionally, placed in a communal tomb. Archaeologists refer to this type of interment as an infant jar burial. Beth Alpert Nakhai of the University of Arizona explores infant jar burials in her article “Baby Burials in the Middle Bronze Age” published in the July/August/September/October 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. Archaeologists have found infant jar burials throughout the ancient Near East, but especially in ancient Canaan. Although the practice of burying infants in storage jars spanned millennia, the custom reached its zenith in the Middle Bronze Age (2000–1550 B.C.E.).

In the ancient world, infant mortality rates were high. A third of children died before their first birthday, and almost half died before their fifth birthday. Since a large portion of the population never made it to maturity in Middle Bronze Age Canaan, this left a mark on society and impacted burial practices. A child’s grave usually looked different from that of an adult.

During the Middle Bronze Age, the Canaanites chose to bury their dead in a variety of ways. Archaeologists typically find adults in tombs, burial caves, and pits. Although the most common type of burial for babies was the jar burial, not all young children were buried in storage jars. Some children—usually older than three years—were buried in tombs or other graves similar to adults.

Many infant jar burials contained grave goods, items to assist the dead child in the afterlife. The most common grave good in an infant jar burial is a juglet, a proto-bottle of sorts. Other items include small stone tools, blades, small vessels, and scarabs. Weapons, jewelry, and other objects common in adult graves were excluded from infant jar burials.

Nakhai believes that the placement of infant jar burials—usually within the home—and the inclusion of specific grave goods reflect a desire on the part of dead infant’s mother to care for her child in death—as she would have cared for that child in life. These burials differed from those of adults because the infants had not been fully integrated into society by the time of their deaths. It is possible they had not undergone rites of initiation or integration, and thus they were not viewed as full members of society. Therefore, they were buried differently—in a way that kept them close to home.

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