Karen Stern, an associate professor of history at Brooklyn College, has spent the past several years exploring writings and drawings that have been found on the walls of ancient sites in Israel and other places in the Mideast, Europe and North Africa. In a recent interview, she talked about her new book, Writing on the Wall: Graffiti and the Forgotten Jews of Antiquity, and the new clues it reveals about the lives of ordinary Jews nearly 2,000 years ago.
Where does this adventure begin?
I did my Ph.D. in religious studies after studying classics and archaeology as an undergraduate. I spent my summers excavating in Israel, Greece and Jordan, and did my dissertation and wrote my first book on Jews in Roman North Africa. That research brought me into catacombs in Tunisia and Morocco. About nine years ago, I became fascinated by an important ancient necropolis in Israel called Beit She‘arim, where Jews in the second through sixth centuries C.E. buried their dead. When I read through published excavation reports from the site, I was shocked to learn that archaeologists had once found ancient graffiti throughout the caves. When I traveled to Israel and finally saw the graffiti in person, I realized how important they were as pieces of historical information produced by everyday people in the ancient world. Today if you saw graffiti in a cemetery you’d consider it disrespectful and horrible. But in the ancient world some people, including Jews, wrote graffiti around tombs reverentially, as a form of respect for the dead. Sometimes they would write curses to prevent people from robbing tombs or to try to comfort the dead: one person at Beit She‘arim carved a message around a tomb entrance: “Good luck on your resurrection!” Studying these led me to do field research in burial caves elsewhere in Israel, where I found several examples of graffiti that had never been published before.
How did your visits to that burial site lead to a book that shines a light more broadly on what you call “the forgotten Jews of antiquity”?
When I began the project, I thought I was going to just write an article about the graffiti from Beit She‘arim. But I had also been doing research on this amazing synagogue in the town of Dura Europos in Roman Syria. The synagogue is famous in scholarly circles. Archaeologists discovered it in the 1930s and it was preserved to a remarkable degree. I realized that there were graffiti in that building too, though they hadn’t received a lot of attention. Sometimes when you notice a phenomenon you realize it’s much more pervasive than you thought. It became clearer to me that many Jews, and also their neighbors, drew thousands of graffiti everywhere in the ancient world — inside peoples’ homes, burial sites, pagan shrines, synagogues, and around travel routes and theaters. But many were ignored because some archaeologists considered them to be sort of slapdash and incidental; they compared them to modern graffiti to denigrate them and cast them aside. But graffiti show how ancient Jews interacted with the spaces around them and used them in ways that we would otherwise have no information about.
What struck you as most significant about the graffiti you found?
Historians of Jews in antiquity traditionally rely heavily on literary sources written by the elites of their societies. But the records of these ancient authors cannot fairly represent how their non-elite contemporaries lived. It would be as if the one percent of today were responsible for setting down the information that subsequent generations would use to write the history of our time. Writing graffiti was really commonplace in antiquity and has something important to say about the lives of ordinary ancient Jews — how they lived their daily lives and what they believed — in regions that had been conquered by Hellenistic kings and were regulated by Roman emperors. Graffiti document the lives of the undocumented and studying it helps identify ancient behaviors, customs and beliefs that authors never mention.
One thing that fascinates me is how some graffiti preserve important information about the relationships between Jews and their neighbors, in ways that sometimes contradict literary records. For example, ancient Jewish texts prohibit Jews from praying inside pagan or Christian spaces for worship. But some pagan sanctuaries and shrines, including those from Egypt and Israel, include prayer graffiti written by Jews beside their pagan and Christian neighbors. These types of graffiti demonstrate that Jews were making their mark in places where their neighbors were also worshiping their gods and that it was okay to them. People who study inscriptions have paid attention to these graffiti but historians have not. These are some of the ways that studying them has the power to change our understanding of how the Jews of antiquity behaved and lived.
What’s next for you — is there more to find?
There are reported but very poorly published graffiti from a large complex of Jewish catacombs in Rome — underneath Mussolini’s old villa. They closed the catacombs right when I was starting this project and wouldn’t let anyone visit them. That’s the first place I will visit when they open them up again.
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