Sunday, June 19, 2011

Writing in the City of the Dead

I just saw this in NPR: archaeologists are studying the graffiti in the ancient Beit Shearim necropolis:

Aramaic is the lingua franca of the ancient Middle East, the linguistic root of modern day Hebrew and Arabic.

"Once you understand Aramaic," says Karen Stern, "you can read anything. You can read Hebrew, you can read Phoenician. I always call it the little black dress of Semitic languages."

Stern, 35, is an archaeologist and an assistant professor in the history department at Brooklyn College. Her passion is the tomb graffiti of the ancient Jews in what was then Roman Palestine. Graffiti has been "published, but sort of disregarded," she says. "Whereas I think it is intimate, vocal and spontaneous, and adds to the historical record."


"They were grapho-maniacal," Jonathan Price, head of the classics department at Tel Aviv University, says of the ancient Jews who were entombed here in the first and second centuries.

Over the next decade, Price and a group of scholars plan to publish many volumes of inscriptions from walls, pots, glass — everything but books — dating from the time of Alexander the Great to that of the Prophet Muhammad.

They will include many languages, such as Hebrew and Aramaic dialects like Syriac, Nabatean and Samaritan.

Price describes the graffiti as "a spontaneous verbal outburst" that adds intimacy to the historical record of the ancient Levant and Mesopotamia.

"These cultures wrote everything," he says. "They recorded their personal lives, their public lives; empires recorded themselves. They were hyperlinguistic."

There is also an interesting theory of the pictures of "nets" at each of the entrances--that they are not just to keep evil spirits out, but also to keep the dead in...perhaps in fear of zombies????

And as I just saw that Jim Davila pointed out, Aramaic is a branch on the same tree as Hebrew, Arabic, etc., not the root.

Read all of it here.

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