Israeli archaeologist Dr. Boaz Zissu enjoys deciphering the mysterious scratches on the walls of ancient caves.
Pointing to a set of 2,000-year-old scrawls apparently scratched into the soft rock with a nail, “It says ‘Christo,’” he explains, pointing out the ancient Greek letters chi and epsilon carved about chest height. “It’s the name of Jesus but in vocative, like ‘O Jesus.’”
Such 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,” writes Arieh O’Sullivan on The Media Lina, a Middle-East-focused news website.
“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,” explains Zissu, today a senior lecturer at Bar Ilan University.
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.
“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. to Mohammad, the seventh century A.D.
At 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 A.D., O’Sullivan and Zissu crawled into the vestibule of a older burial cave:
“We are in a Jewish burial cave of the first century A.D. 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.”
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 somebody written by one of our ancestors 2,000 years ago.”
“It’s like getting an e-mail from the past.”