Writing on the Wall: Lecturer analyzes history of the Jewish faith through graffiti

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Dr. Karen B. Stern came to UConn on Thursday to discuss her unique approach, as used in her book “Writing on the Wall”. (Aver Bikerman/The Daily Campus)

Dr. Karen B. Stern came to UConn on Thursday to discuss her unique approach, as used in her book “Writing on the Wall”. (Aver Bikerman/The Daily Campus)

The daily lives of ancient Jewish people of the Mediterranean are largely missing from the literary sources and evidence we have of that time. In many cases, the only record of their existence is the names on their tombstones and the few mosaics preserved from ancient synagogues. The only literature mentioning Jews are the religious, inward-focusing “Rabbing texts” and the works of Christians and Pagans who used the word “Jew” as an insult for other bad Christians/Pagans. Neither of which explain how the Jewish people lived their lives: Where they worked, where they lived, what their communities were like, what their culture was like outside of the Talmud, etc. Dr. Karen B. Stern came to UConn on Thursday to discuss her unique approach, as used in her book “Writing on the Wall,” in finding out the history of Jews through the graffiti they left behind. 

 When looking at burial grounds and the remnants of synagogues, the scope of the Mediterranean that Jews seemed to inhabit appeared to be very small. But once Stern began looking for signs of Jewish graffiti — often marked by the use of Hebrew, Jewish prayer or menorahs — that scope widened significantly. Not only is there evidence of Jewish graffiti all around the Mediterranean, but there are also signs of it across Arabia and Saudi Arabia.  

Stern defined “graffito” (the singular of graffiti) as carved or painted words or images that reflect the secondary use of a space. This excludes formal or monumental inscriptions, and its definition may change depending on the graffito. To document and analyze the graffiti she found, she followed a number of steps including identifying unpublished and published examples of graffiti, photographing and collecting the examples, creating a database and making a framework. When taking photos of a graffito, even if it just appeared to be a carving, she used infrared light to reveal any of the red ochre paint traditionally used in the graffiti of this time.  

“It wasn’t really what I expected, but I kind of liked what she did,” Yve Francois, sixth-semester race, gender, ethnicity and health care major, said. “I liked how it talked about what we view of as graffiti versus what graffiti actually is, and the fact that graffiti we see on a daily basis isn’t actually graffiti.” 

Stern found a number of examples of graffiti in the burial caves — which are caves carved in the sides of hills where Jews buried their dead — of Beit She’arim National Park. The graffiti she found was often very small. The images of people carved into the walls resemble the doodles of a child, although she assured those in attendance to her lecture that they were drawn by an adult. All of these tiny images of people had hair that stuck up straight from the top of their heads and very prominent eyebrows. Some of these people carried weapons pointed toward the tombs. These are thought to be images of gladiators used to scare off grave robbers. In addition to people, there were also images of boats. Due to their placement in the burial caves, they likely represent sailing to the afterlife. But boats drawn in other contexts can mean a variety of things. In fact, boats are the most common instance of graffiti in the Mediterranean.  

“Studying archeology is very interesting but there’s range of ambiguity,” Anita Luxkaranayagam, eighth-semester physiology and neurobiology major, said. “So I think you can interpret a lot but you’ll never really know the true answer. But, it’s still very interesting to be learning about.” 

Graffiti can also come in the form of words. Written on the wall of the burial caves, close to the entrance, are the words, “Take coverage, pious parents/holy fathers, no one is immortal.” And directly above that is the slightly humorous addition of, “Good luck in your resurrection!” These two phrases welcome the dead as they are brought into the caves to be buried. Above the tombs, there can sometimes be curses to keep away grave robbers, such as: “Anyone who shall open this burial upon whomever is inside it shall die an evil end.” Unfortunately, these curses didn’t seem to work since almost every tomb in these catacombs was robbed in antiquity. Graffiti can also be found in ancient synagogues, especially in the form of carved prayers. 

 “Graffiti has been kind of misconstrued throughout history and it has its own way of propelling and showing you about different cultures and ethnicities and different ways of living,” Francois said. “But there’s still a lot to be learned and there’s a lot of interpretation with that, so it’s kind of cool to see how different people used it as a form of protest; as a form of safeguarding their people and propelling their culture forward.” 

One of Stern’s more interesting findings was a carving in a hippodrome by a Jewish woman merchant of a menorah and her name. This is surprising since it was created at a time when Christian literature talks about how they hated Jews. So the fact that she drew a menorah, thus declaring herself as Jewish to those buying her wares, shows that relations between Jews and Christians wasn’t as bad as Christian literature may have made historians think. It also provides the only example of archeological evidence that women worked outside of their homes during this time in the Mediterranean. 

By closely studying the graffiti of the ancient Jewish people, Stern was able to unravel several mysteries about their daily lives that could not have been solved otherwise. 


Rebecca Maher is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at rebecca.l.maher@uconn.edu.

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