In search of ancient graffiti

A Paleo-Facebook, writings on the wall tell of ordinary people from distant past.

September 3, 2011 09:03
Dr. Boaz Zissu explores ancient graffiti.

cave 311. (photo credit: The Media Line)


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HIRBET BURJIN, Israel - It’s hot. A haze of heat hangs flat over a copse of hundred-year-old oaks and dry scrubland of the Judean foothills where people may have lived for millennia, but not a soul is around today.

“Don’t worry. The air conditioner is on inside,” jokes Boaz Zissu, a rugged, tall archaeologist with a swagger that makes it easy to conjure up his past as the former commander of the unit for protection of antiquities in Israel.

Shortly later, after clambering through the thicket and fig trees, crawling down steps carved into the earth, we are sitting in the cool, darkened halls of a cave staring at its white limestone walls and trying to decipher the mysterious scratches.

“It says ‘Christo.’ It’s the name of Jesus but in vocative, like ‘O Jesus,’” says Zissu, pointing out the ancient Greek letters chi and epsilon carved about chest height.

Ancient graffiti, etched into the walls of burial caves, tombs and quarries, is a postcard from the past and gives us a look into the minds of our ascendants. In a way, graffiti is like the Facebook of earlier eras.

“Graffiti are a way of expressing yourself,” says Zissu, today a senior lecturer at Bar Ilan University. “In a period when Internet and blogs didn’t exist and somebody wanted to express himself and to say something they were doing, they did it with a nail on a wall of a cave.”

Graffiti in the modern world are seen by many as vandalism. For others, it’s a sort of pop culture on the boundaries of modern art, never mind that it defaces someone else’s property. But it’s not new. Graffiti has been around since ancient times, ever since ordinary people could write, really. It’s a generally overlooked nuisance for most archaeologists. But for some, it’s another glimpse into the past.

It has been nearly 13 years since Zissu has last visited this cave, and it takes a moment for him to get his bearings. The cool cave was once a home to Byzantine hermits and they left their marks on the walls, which have remarkably remained untouched for 1,500 years.

“I hope to find more inscriptions that I overlooked then,” says Zissu as we scour the cave niches. At the far end we come to a carved cross with the Greek letters delta, alpha nu, iota, eta and lambda. ΔΑΝΙΗΛ. Daniel followed by the name John. It is surrounded by the images of two lions, evoking the biblical story Daniel in the lions’ den.

“We have plenty of depictions of Daniel in the lions’ den because it’s a story of salvation,” Zissu says.

In modern days, spray paint and marker pens are the most common instruments of the graffiti artist. But in ancient days, a nail or stick often did the job.

“The major difference between modern graffiti and ancient graffiti is that many ancient graffiti was written really to last,” Professor Jonathan J. Price, chair of the classics department at Tel Aviv University tells The Media Line. “It wasn’t Kilroy Was Here. It wasn’t some scatological remark on a bathroom stall but it was often someone’s epitaph written by hand on a wall either by paint or with a nail or messages sort of to the future.”

He says that the study of ancient graffiti has been somewhat neglected, but efforts are underway now by an international team of scholars to publish all the inscriptions found in Israel dating from Alexander the Great, fourth century B.C.E. to Mohammad, the seventh century C.E. The corpus will contain some 13,000 texts in more than 10 languages.

Two thousand years ago, these hills were the metropolis of the Jewish nation. Virtually every hilltop was inhabited by Jewish villagers and farmers. Most were sent into exile by the Romans. Over the next centuries, the area was inhabited by the Byzantines, Crusaders, Arabs and ultimately Jews once again. All have left their mark. 

Our quest for more ancient graffiti takes us to Hirbet Burjin, an ancient settlement that sits atop a network of underground tunnels the Jews used to hide from the Roman soldiers during the Second Revolt in 135 C.E. We crawl into the vestibule of one older burial cave, shooing away beetles and pushing through spider webs till we come to the small doorway leading into the burial chamber.

“We are in a Jewish burial cave of the first century C.E. of the time of Jesus and the big surprise was here on this wall,” Zissu says in the dark. Scratched on the lintel are the Hebrew letters shin, peh, nun שפן three times. Written 2,000 years ago, they are identical to modern Hebrew. It means rabbit.

“It is a well known family mentioned in the bible several times, but here it’s the first time that this name appears in the Second Temple context,” Zissu explains. I think it marks the owners, the name of the owner of this tomb.”

Price says the people living in this area during this period were “hyperlinguistic.”

“When we talk about the basic level of literacy graffiti show us just from their sheer volume and also the range of the society they represent, that this part of the world in particular, was highly literate. That is, basic literary skills were shared by a very high proportion of the population,” Price says.

“When we talk about the basic level of literacy, graffiti also show us -- just from their sheer volume and also range -- the society they represent in this part of the world in particular, [that it] was highly literate, that is basic literary skills were shared by a very high proportion of the population.”

Back in the burial cave, Zissu points out another bit of graffiti, only this one much smaller, more difficult to read and out of context. He explains that it is 3,000-year-old-Paleo-Hebrew script and spells out the name Yonatan. He says it was obviously written 2,000 years ago, perhaps copied from a coin. But why?

“In the Second Temple period, Jews returned to this script on special occasions. It is sacred and also it reminded them of the good old days of the First Temple period,” he says.  “I’m always looking for these tiny graffiti because they tell a story and then I believe that you have a direct way to somebody’s mind, without historians and formal sources, who tell their own story. Here you can directly read something written by one of our ancestors 2,000 years ago.”

“It’s like getting an e-mail from the past,” Zissu chuckles. 

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