ARAMAIC WATCH: Aramaic is "the little black dress of Semitic languages."
Archaeologists Unscramble Ancient Graffiti In Israel
by Jacki Lyden (NPR)
June 19, 2011
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."
In this, Stern seems to be supported by scholars: She is completing a yearlong fellowship at the W.F. Albright Institute for Archaeological Research in Jerusalem.
Nitpick: Aramaic is cognate with Hebrew and Arabic but is not ancestral to either. It is a linguistic branch on the same tree, not the root.
On Prof. Stern's work at the site of Beth She'arim:
Listening To The Dead
It's in the Cave of Coffins that Stern points to two inscriptions in ancient Greek. They are tiny and clustered near niches once holding oil lamps.
One says, "Take courage, Holy Parents of Pharcitae, udes adonitas — no one is immortal." Stern explains that the dead who are being brought into the catacombs shouldn't feel that they are weak just because they've passed on.
She reads aloud the other inscription: "Good luck on your resurrection."
"Of course, resurrection is not in the Jewish tradition," says Emma Maayan Fanar, a professor of Byzantine art at the University of Haifa, who has teamed up with Stern. "It's very uncommon."
Tiny menorahs are scattered as engravings throughout the tomb, a symbol of the Temple in Jerusalem and a symbol of the endurance of the Jewish faith.
There are magical spells in Greek. There are also curses in Aramaic that threaten a bad fate to the tomb robber. Those seem to have been ignored, as only the graffiti and heavy stone coffins are left.
In the dark, the effect — particularly in these tiny messages — is to hear the dead speaking. It's peaceful, but lively. One gets the sense of a giant Facebook page of the ancient world.
Read it all. This is important work. Only rarely to we get to hear the voices of the regular people of antiquity, since most of what was passed down in writing was produced by the elite.
(Via Tom Verenna on Facebook.)
UPDATE (20 June): Jared Calaway brings in the zombies
Also, in an e-mail, Joseph Lauer comments: "As some reader's comments following the article noted, the following sentence is not accurate: 'Of course, resurrection is not in the Jewish tradition,' says Emma Maayan Fanar, a professor of Byzantine art at the University of Haifa, who has teamed up with Stern. 'It's very uncommon.'" Perhaps it's uncommon in Jewish graffiti of the period; I don't know. But it is certainly a widespread idea in Jewish literature of the Hellenistic and Roman periods.