"Uncovering an ancient maze" (International Herald Tribune)
Andree Brooks NYT
Saturday, May 17, 2003
In the Italian dust, signs of a past Jewish life
VENOSA, Italy Amid rolling pastureland about 300 kilometers southeast of Rome, dust is flying. Workers carefully dig through crumbling sandstone deep beneath the surface of a grassy hillside. Stout wooden beams support a makeshift entrance and a labyrinth of newly exposed passageways that lead into an ancient underground maze. A loopy string of construction lamps illuminate the way.
An excited archaeologist leads a visitor to a wooden board protecting a discovery made just the previous afternoon. It is a seven-branched candelabra, the original symbol of the Jews, carved into a slab found at a burial niche. The carving is so sharp and clean, it might have been completed yesterday.
The quality and clarity foreshadow even more important finds likely to come. The catacomb is only one of dozens of Jewish sites, artifacts, documents, rare books and manuscripts being discovered, analyzed and restored in southern Italy and Sicily. This work by scholars and government authorities is beginning to flesh out the largely unknown story of vibrant yet long-lost communities of Jews that inhabited the region from Roman times to the end of the Middle Ages. Jews were expelled from southern Italy, known then as the Kingdom of Naples, in the 16th century. Few returned even after the ban was lifted in the 18th century.
Historians associated with the excavation believe the catacomb may be the largest ever found in Western Europe. Hundreds of niches have already been cleared, the bones either looted or reburied according to ritual law. What is striking is that the inscriptions on the burial slabs found thus far are almost all in Greek. There is little or no Hebrew. When Hebrew is used, the characters mostly spell out Greek or Latin words. Both Greek and Latin were commonly used in that part of Italy at the time. This suggests an assimilated life for the Jews who may have lived here outside Venosa between the third and seventh centuries. "Our Jews were not separated from everyone else in those early centuries," said Cesare Colafemmina, visiting professor of Hebrew and Hebraic literature at the University of Calabria.
Documents indicate that Emperor Titus brought 5,000 captives to the region after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70, Colafemmina said. But hundreds more are thought to have settled here before and after that, simply because it was a prosperous crossroads of maritime trade. And Jews played a vital role in Mediterranean commerce. By the end of the fourth century many towns were dominated by Jews. They even became political and community leaders, he said.
Read it all. The finds include a tombstone of a Jewish captive brought to Rome after the revolt in 70 C.E.