Sometimes it’s colorful; sometimes it’s all black. It can be beautiful, it can be basic, it can be crude. It may give a name, make a political statement, mark off territory, or express an emotion. Sometimes it’s legible; often-times, it’s blessedly impossible to read. One fact is almost universally true – it’s nearly always right where it shouldn’t be.
Graffiti is the scourge of building owners, public transportation systems, and road maintenance workers. A whole service industry has developed surrounding the removal of this unwanted tagging. While it’s hard not to admire the beauty and artistry of the works of some of these “Spray Paint Picassos”, it’s also impossible to get past the civil criminality of what they are doing.
In Israel, there are plenty of paint cans being used for nefarious purposes. However, there is another category of graffiti that is actually celebrated. This is the ancient graffiti that can be found around old burial sites and archaeological digs. And, unlike the misdemeanor artwork of our day, this ancient scrawl was often appreciated and encouraged.
The people who lived in Israel from seven hundred years before Christ to seven hundred years after loved to write little messages.i “They were grapho-maniacal,” says Jonathan Price, head of the classics department at Tel Aviv University. “They recorded their personal lives, their public lives; empires recorded themselves. They were hyperlinguistic.”ii Since this was pre-Facebook and Twitter, what materials did these ancients use to over-share about their lives? Really anything they could find. They wrote on pots and walls and glass and tombs.
Ancient graffiti has opened up a whole new type of study – micro-archaeology. Some dismiss these messages from the past as “random and incidental”iii and say that we really can’t learn anything from them. However, Karen B. Stern, an assistant professor at Brooklyn College wrote, “Sometimes it’s accidents that produce exciting finds…. It’s about paying attention to voices that have otherwise been drowned out.”iv
The graffiti is sometimes expressed in drawings – a menorah on a doorjamb or a skeleton hovering over a grave in a catacomb. Often times, they are written messages. In an ancient Hebrew version of “Kilroy was here”, a message was left multiple places on the doorway of a third-century synagogue in Roman Syria that read “I am Hiya”v – sort of a “Hi, ya, I’m Hiya.”
In the burial caves of Beit She’arim in Israel, called the Cave of the Coffins, is an inscription near a tomb written in Greek that reads, “Good luck on your resurrection.”vi This is particularly interesting since resurrection is not part of the Jewish tradition. Scholars debate whether this is a serious wish by a loved one or a snide remark written by someone who wasn’t a fan of the deceased.
Just like a hypothetical future civilization couldn’t fully understand our culture by reading the tagging on a Chicago “L” train, it will take more than ancient graffiti to paint an accurate picture of Israel’s past. But it does help to give a little more color to what we have already learned. As Stern puts it, “More careful attention to neglected pictures and phrases can transform something forgotten into something significant, offering improved insights into the daily lives of Jews in antiquity.”vii
i Stern, Karen B. “Archaeological Views: Jewish Graffiti-Glimpsing the Forgotten Lives of Antiquity.” Biblical Archaeology Society, 1 Apr. 2019, www.biblicalarchaeology.org/magazine/archaeological-views-jewish-graffiti-glimpsing-the-forgotten-lives-of-antiquity/.
ii Lyden, Jacki. “Archaeologists Unscramble Ancient Graffiti In Israel.” NPR, NPR, 18 June 2011, www.npr.org/2011/06/19/137257434/archaeologists-unscramble-ancient-graffiti-in-israel.
iii Kahn, Eve. “The Wit and Wisdom of Ancient Jewish Graffiti.” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, 24 May 2018, www.atlasobscura.com/articles/ancient-jewish-graffiti.
v Karen B. Stern.
vi Eve Kahn.
vii Karen B. Stern.