Archaeologists Unscramble Ancient Graffiti In Israel

Jun 18, 2011
Originally published on May 23, 2012 11:44 am

Aramaic is the lingua franca of the ancient Middle East, the linguistic root of modern day Hebrew and Arabic.

"Once you understand Aramaic," says Karen Stern, "you can read anything. You can read Hebrew, you can read Phoenician. I always call it the little black dress of Semitic languages."

Stern, 35, is an archaeologist and an assistant professor in the history department at Brooklyn College. Her passion is the tomb graffiti of the ancient Jews in what was then Roman Palestine. Graffiti has been "published, but sort of disregarded," she says. "Whereas I think it is intimate, vocal and spontaneous, and adds to the historical record."

In this, Stern seems to be supported by scholars: She is completing a yearlong fellowship at the W.F. Albright Institute for Archaeological Research in Jerusalem.

City Of The Dead

An expedition to the Southern Galilee a few hours north ends at the site of one of the country's richest burial sites: Beit She'arim. It is both national park and necropolis; a city of the dead dating back to the first century. There are more than 30 excavated tombs here.

"It's amazing that what can seem like hills and fields is standing over the largest concentration of burials from the Roman and Byzantine periods in the entire region," Stern says, while standing on the hillside.

Jewish people came to live or be buried here from all over the ancient world, according to Beit She'arim manager, Revital Weiss.

"We have a burial place from the Lebanon community, from Syria — the farthest one is from Yemen," Weiss says.

Jews were exiled from Jerusalem after a revolt in A.D. 132. Beit She'arim, established by a fabled Jewish rabbinical prince, Judah, became a refuge for him and his followers.

Weiss leads the way to a particularly large and rich tomb called the Cave of the Coffins. Sarcophagi are not a Jewish tradition, she notes, but in Roman times Jews believed if they copied the Romans, talked like the Romans, behaved like the Romans, they might have a better life. Christian and pagan influences also are mingled in here.

Listening To The Dead

It's in the Cave of Coffins that Stern points to two inscriptions in ancient Greek. They are tiny and clustered near niches once holding oil lamps.

One says, "Take courage, Holy Parents of Pharcitae, udes adonitas — no one is immortal." Stern explains that the dead who are being brought into the catacombs shouldn't feel that they are weak just because they've passed on.

She reads aloud the other inscription: "Good luck on your resurrection."

"Of course, resurrection is not in the Jewish tradition," says Emma Maayan Fanar, a professor of Byzantine art at the University of Haifa, who has teamed up with Stern. "It's very uncommon."

Tiny menorahs are scattered as engravings throughout the tomb, a symbol of the Temple in Jerusalem and a symbol of the endurance of the Jewish faith.

There are magical spells in Greek. There are also curses in Aramaic that threaten a bad fate to the tomb robber. Those seem to have been ignored, as only the graffiti and heavy stone coffins are left.

In the dark, the effect — particularly in these tiny messages — is to hear the dead speaking. It's peaceful, but lively. One gets the sense of a giant Facebook page of the ancient world.

Graffiti And Linguistics

"They were grapho-maniacal," Jonathan Price, head of the classics department at Tel Aviv University, says of the ancient Jews who were entombed here in the first and second centuries.

Over the next decade, Price and a group of scholars plan to publish many volumes of inscriptions from walls, pots, glass — everything but books — dating from the time of Alexander the Great to that of the Prophet Muhammad.

They will include many languages, such as Hebrew and Aramaic dialects like Syriac, Nabatean and Samaritan.

Price describes the graffiti as "a spontaneous verbal outburst" that adds intimacy to the historical record of the ancient Levant and Mesopotamia.

"These cultures wrote everything," he says. "They recorded their personal lives, their public lives; empires recorded themselves. They were hyperlinguistic."

Trapping The Dead

Israeli archaeologist Boaz Zissu is another fan of this "micro-archaeology." He, too, thinks tomb graffiti has been neglected and is eager to work with Stern. An archaeologist at Bar-Ilan University, he drives his battered Jeep out to the Judean foothills south of Jerusalem. This area is honeycombed with tombs, too.

Zissu wants to show Stern a cave he'd discovered — and not seen since 1998 — after finding a bit of tomb graffiti while surveying for the Israeli antiquities department. But the cave, at the bottom of a Byzantine quarry in a scrub of high desert, is not visible.

A rugged man in his 40s, Zissu had to find a lonely fig tree that marked the site. Figs were often planted near tombs to give mourners nourishment. When he found it, he dragged a spindly 25-foot ladder out of the Jeep and pushed the ladder into the quarry. At the bottom lay the rock tomb from the first century.

There was also a tarantula. It didn't bite.

"OK," he says to Stern. "Your goal is to find the graffiti."

Zissu meant his own, previously published inscription.

But within moments, Stern had found graffiti he'd overlooked back in 1998. Several lines long, it was almost impossibly small and couldn't really be photographed without raking infrared light over it. But there it was.

"This is exciting," Stern says while whipping out her notebook. She tries to make out the inscription, but it is in scrambled Greek letters, including T-h-e-o-s, or God, written backward, most likely because it is a magical spell.

Before leaving, Stern and Zissu point to some small net designs that look like Native American dream catchers in miniature. There are similar designs at Beit She'arim and the two wonder what they are, for they seem to be at every archway.

"I have my own crackpot theory," Stern says. "I think possibly they could be nets to keep the dead in and the bad spirits out."

"So they don't come into the settlement?" Boaz asks.

"Yes, at first I thought it was protection for the dead," Stern says. "Now, I think you want to keep them inside, so they don't wander about and do bad things."

The two archaeologists will return soon to record and continue to research their find.

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This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.


LYDEN: This is a story that begins on a winter's day in Brooklyn, and ends in the Judean foothills of Israel. I was sitting in my neighborhood cafe last December. It was crowded, and I was sharing table space with an interesting- looking young woman with wild, blonde hair. I didn't want to interrupt. And then it happened: I spilled my coffee on some papers she was grading. I looked down and heard myself say, isn't that Aramaic? And it was.

P: A friend of Aramaic is a friend of mine.


LYDEN: But it's not that hard. It's the lingua franca of the Middle East, historically.

P: Sure, absolutely, especially after the Achaemenid Empire...

LYDEN: It turned out that her name is Karen Stern, an archaeologist and assistant professor in the history department at Brooklyn College.

P: I actually always tell my students - I always encourage them to study Aramaic because once you understand how to read Aramaic, you can read Phoenician, you can read Ugaritic, you can read Biblical Hebrew. I always call it the little black dress of Semitic languages.

LYDEN: Karen Stern told me she was collecting Aramaic graffiti. Aramaic is one of the roots of modern Hebrew and it's found in Jewish tombs in Israel, in what would then have been Roman Palestine. Tomb graffiti from before the time of Christ? This, I had to see.


LYDEN: In May, I met Karen Stern in the Old City of Jerusalem, and we went up to the southern Galilee, where she's doing her research on tomb graffiti. We visited one of Israel's most historically rich burial sites, called Beit She'arim, a national park dating back to the first century B.C. Today, it's a necropolis, or city of the dead.

P: It's amazing that what seems to just be a series of hills or fields is actually covering over the largest concentration of burials from the Roman and early Byzantine periods in the entire region.

LYDEN: The park's manager, who would love to see it become a Unesco world heritage site, is Revital Weiss.

M: So Jewish people came here from all over the ancient world. We have a burial place of the chairman of the Lebanon community from Syria. The farthest one is from Yemen.

LYDEN: You can see that international quality in the more than 30 excavated catacombs in this Jewish city of the dead. Revital Weiss leads the way to the gray rock tombs, cut into the chalky slopes of the hills, to a burial chamber called the Cave of Coffins.

M: The custom of burying people in a sarcophagus here was copied. It's not a Jewish custom. The Jewish custom is to bury...

LYDEN: In the ground.

M: the ground. So Jewish people were influenced by the culture of the Romans those days. They believed that if they will behave like the Romans, talk like the Romans, call themselves in the names of Romans, they will live better life.

LYDEN: Of course, people had many hopes for their afterlife - and many fears. That's precisely what Karen Stern is focusing on with this graffiti. We descended into the Cave of Coffins.

H: They cluster where oils lamps were stuck in the wall.

P: A lot of times when you see the lamp marks, you'll see soot around it. You'll see sort of a darkened area because again, they used the oil lamps here to light as people entered.

LYDEN: As ubiquitous as Aramaic is in the Ancient Middle East, ancient Greek is also common. Karen Stern pointed over our heads to two, tiny Greek inscriptions. My first graffiti.

P: These are both in Greek. This one says: Take courage, holy parents of Pharcitae, udes adonitas. So take courage holy parents, or fathers, no one is immortal. So the dead who are being brought in to the catacomb, they shouldn't feel bad that they're particularly weak just because they have passed away. And then this message over here says, good luck on your resurrection.

LYDEN: Good luck on your resurrection - you can see that inscription on our website.

P: Resurrection is not in Jewish tradition, actually. It is very uncommon for Jewish tradition.

LYDEN: Emma Mayyan is an art historian and Byzantine scholar at the University of Haifa. She's teamed up with Karen Stern.

P: But if you turn the corner here, there's actually a menorah.

LYDEN: And just for people who might not know, the menorah is the symbol of light, of constancy, faith.

P: From the temple, after the destruction of the temple, it became a symbol of Judaism. And this is how we know that it is Jewish.

LYDEN: The tiny menorahs are scattered through the tombs. Karen's husband, Ezra Gabbay, born in Jerusalem, studied Aramaic as a boy. He reads us a curse against tomb robbers.

M: (Aramaic spoken). Anyone who shall open this burial with the person who lies therein shall die in a unfortunate end.

LYDEN: Either the grave robbers were illiterate, or they didn't really care, because the tombs are bare except for the writing - yet they're alive.


LYDEN: Standing alone in these tombs, especially in a tomb decorated with as many little figures and menorahs and lines as this one is, you almost get the feeling that you can hear people talking, sleeping; that you can hear people who were buried here, who were entombed here. And it's a quiet and pleasant feeling.


LYDEN: When we left Beit She'arim, I got a sense of the graffiti of the ancient world as a giant Facebook page, written in ancient languages. Before you dismiss that as a totally lightweight thought, let's listen to the head of the classics department at Tel Aviv University, Jonathan Price.

P: Many cultures who lived in this area were graphomaniacal - that is, they just wrote everything. They recorded their personal lives, they recorded their public lives, empires recorded themselves; there were actually reactions to empire, there are personal letters, there are public declarations - everything. So I think that in this part of the world at that time, it was not only hyperlinguistic, but it was also intensely literate.

LYDEN: Price has reviewed Karen Stern's paper, called "Graffiti as Gift" - referring to the past, of course. Graffiti, he says, adds a spontaneous, verbal dimension to the historical record.


P: I brought the ladder and also some ropes.

LYDEN: It's another day in our search for what might be called Writers of the Lost Ark. Only this time, we're south of Jerusalem.

P: We are in the Judean foothills - in the gently rolling hills - and you can see the Mediterranean maquis.

LYDEN: Boaz Zissu is a rugged man in his early 40s. He twists and turns our jeep off the road. A Bedouin rides past on a donkey and for a moment, the world looks as it must have in the time of Christ. In this Mediterranean landscape, Boaz Zissu is looking for a certain fig tree. Figs were planted by tombs so that ancient mourners had something to eat.


LYDEN: And looking at nothing but the high desert and scrub, Boaz Zissu has found his cave, which he hasn't seen since 1998.


LYDEN: The archaeologist, who consulted his maps, shoves a spindly, 25-foot-long steel ladder past the fig branches into a Byzantine quarry. At the bottom is the mouth of the cave. We descend very carefully.

P: So now, we're in the vestibule. You see a small opening, easy to block. And now, your goal is to find the graffiti. Where are the graffiti?


P: Who is going to look for the graffiti?

LYDEN: Need a treasure map, Karen?


LYDEN: You're finding it, I think.

P: Yeah.

LYDEN: Tiny little scratchings. Is that Greek?

P: Mm-hmm.

P: Wow. I need to write this down.

LYDEN: I don't know how you found that, Karen. I could have looked all day.

P: If it were an (unintelligible) long, then I imagined here a secret. But it's not a secret. It'd be like a ...

P: Right, right, right.

LYDEN: And Boaz Zissu admits when he was here 14 years earlier, he never saw it.

P: You know that the original excavator missed it.

P: Well, I don't remember seeing this in the publication.


LYDEN: You just found something Boaz missed.

P: I think that we should leave him here to finish his homework.

P: This is exciting.

LYDEN: Congratulations. What a moment. We're so proud to be here with you. This is so exciting.

P: It is exciting.


LYDEN: Karen Stern takes notes on her find. I want her to read the inscription out loud, but the letters are scrambled, she says. Some of them, in Greek, say Theos - T-H-E-O-S, or God backwards - to make a magical spell. In the ancient world, faith and magic intermingled.

P: Today, we would sort of divide it between something like magic or science or religion. And I think in the ancient world, all of those categories - medicine, too - all those categories overlapped. Here it is, right? (Greek spoken)

P: It's something like a fishbone...

LYDEN: In Beit She'arim, in the north of Israel, and in the Judean foothills in the south, we'd been seeing little designs in the tombs that looked, frankly, something like those dream catchers American Indians weave. And we both wondered what they could be. Karen said she had a crackpot theory.

P: They could possibly be placed like nets, to keep the dead in.

P: The bad spirits.

LYDEN: And the bad spirits out.

P: Yeah, exactly. It's a multipurpose.

P: Yeah. Or you want to keep the bad spirits here because you don't want them in the settlement.

P: Right. So that's what I think the - at first, I was thinking about protection of the dead. But then, when you think about this more - right - you want to keep the dead inside. You don't want them wandering about and doing bad things.

LYDEN: No, you sure don't. You just want to record them - their messages of hope, encouragement, human spirit - their voices no longer so very, very silent.


LYDEN: To see pictures of our exploration of tomb graffiti in Israel, go to our website, Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.