Biblical Archaeology Review 45:2, March/April 2019

Archaeological Views: Jewish Graffiti—Glimpsing the Forgotten Lives of Antiquity

By Karen B. Stern

Imagine that you entered a synagogue and saw somebody writing her name on the wall. Or that you visited a cemetery and spied someone with a penknife carving a message into the nearest headstone. How would you—or any reasonable bystander—react? Perhaps you would notify the local authorities. After all, acts of writing graffiti are illegal inside places of worship and burial, as they are associated with vandalism, defacement, and disrespect.

But these same types of behavior resonated differently in antiquity.

Throughout the ancient world, many people, including Jews, carved and painted words and pictures (we might call them graffiti today) in places that would shock modern sensibilities—inside and around holy spaces and shrines, pagan sanctuaries, synagogues, and churches; and throughout cemeteries, necropoleis, and tombs in regions of modern Israel, Syria, Greece, Italy, Malta, Sardinia, Tunisia, and Libya. The ancients also made their marks in other locations: upon cliffs and open-air sanctuaries along desert roads and trade routes of Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula, and Saudi Arabia; and around public theaters and hippodromes (horse racecourses) along the Syrian coast (modern Lebanon) and Asia Minor (the Asian portion of modern Turkey).

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