The large cemetery of Beit She'arim contained many tombs and catacombs, some of them family tombs, others public burial places. Hewn into the slopes of the hills southwest of the town, some tombs are small and simple, but many became, in time, complex networks of catacombs. It would appear that the cutting of burial caves was an important part of the town's economy. Over the centuries, the caves were broken into, damaged and their contents robbed.
The public caves are particularly large and elaborate, with entrances via large courtyards. Their decorative stone façades are in Roman architectural style. The entrances have three openings with heavy pivoting stone doors, carved in imitation of wooden doors with panels and nails. From the entrance, one descends several steps to the burial cave, which consists of a central hallway and a network of halls, at times two stories high. One of the catacombs consists of 16 burial halls with 400 assorted burial places, including troughs, pit graves, arcosolia and loculi. Sarcophagi made of local limestone or marble and a few of clay or lead, were found in the caves. There was also evidence of burial in wooden coffins, of which only the metal parts survived.
The walls of the halls were decorated with carvings, paintings and engravings, providing examples of Jewish folk art of the period, and also Hellenistic influences. Obvious Jewish symbols are the seven-branched menorah (candelabrum), the Torah Ark (sometimes in a niche), the lulav (palm frond), etrog (citron), shofar (ram's horn) and incense shovel. There are also geometric motifs, figures of humans and animals, ships and architectural items, such as an arched gateway or a column with a capital.
Many inscriptions engraved or painted on the walls and on stone plaques mention famous rabbis, community leaders, merchants and officials of the town and the country. Of particular interest are inscriptions naming distant Jewish communities in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Babylonia and even in southern Arabia, from where the remains were brought for burial.
Most of the inscriptions are in Hebrew and Greek, with a few in Aramaic. The text is usually short: the name of the deceased and shalom (peace) or haval (alas!). The longer inscriptions provide information about the deceased, such as genealogy, occupation and place of origin abroad.
Typical Hebrew inscriptions:
This is the resting place of Yudan, son of Levi, forever in peace. May his resting place be [set?] in peace. Of Yudan, son of Levi
This place belongs to priests. Alas!
A typical Aramaic inscription:
He who is buried here is Shim'on the son of Yohanan, and an oath, whoever shall open upon him shall die of an evil end
Typical Greek inscriptions:
We [are the sons] of Leontios from Palmyra, the banker
The tomb of Aidesios, head of the council of elders, from Antiochia
This is the grave of Leontios, the goldsmith, father of Rabbi Paregorios and Julianos, the palatinos
Benjamin, the son of Julius, the textile merchant, son of the most excellent Makrobios
Two elaborate burial complexes found on the northern slope of the town are particularly noteworthy. Semi-circular structures in the form of small theaters with benches, built above the caves, probably served as places for prayer and sermons when families and friends met on memorial days.
Cave complex No.14 probably belonged to the family of Rabbi Judah Hanasi. Hebrew inscriptions mentioning Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Gamliel and Rabbi Hanania, the sons and student of Rabbi Judah Hanasi, were found on the walls:
Simon my son shall be hakham (president of the Sanhedrin), Gamaliel my son patriarch, Hanania bar Hama shall preside over the great court
The most important burial complex (No. 20) has a central corridor, about 50 m. long, from which numerous halls branch off. Some 130 limestone sarcophagi decorated in a local version of Roman mortuary style were found here, as well as marble sarcophagi decorated with mythological scenes, which had been broken and used for the manufacture of lime in later periods. Most of the decorations on these sarcophagi are foreign - bulls' heads, eagles, two lions facing each other - but there are also Jewish symbols, such as the menorah. Some 20 Hebrew inscriptions were found on the walls of the cave and on sarcophagi, in which rabbis and famous persons and members of their families are mentioned:
This is the coffin of Rabbi Hillel [Halil], the son of Rabbi Levi, who made this cave
This is the coffin of Kyra Mega, the wife of Rabbi Joshua, son of Levi, Shalom
The excavations were initiated by B. Mazar, and were later conducted by N. Avigad on behalf of the Israel Exploration Society and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.