Research Programs: Fellowships for University Teachers

Period of Performance

2/1/2014 - 1/31/2015

Funding Totals

$50,400.00 (approved)
$50,400.00 (awarded)

Jewish Graffiti in the Ancient Mediterranean World

FAIN: FA-57961-14

Karen B. Stern-Gabbay
CUNY Research Foundation, Brooklyn College (Brooklyn, NY 11210-2850)

Hundreds of examples of ancient graffiti of Jewish cultural provenance have been discovered in significant archaeological sites throughout the Mediterranean. To this point, historians have ignored these graffiti, which have appeared too commonplace for serious consideration. My research project, 'Graffiti and the Forgotten Jews of Late Antiquity,' argues, by contrast, that a systematic review of graffiti can illuminate otherwise lost evidence for the diversity of Jewish cultures in the Greco-Roman world. Receipt of an NEH fellowship would allow me to complete two penultimate phases of this research: first, to travel to specific archaeological sites to complete my photography of graffiti for a project database, and second, to complete drafts of the final three chapters of my related monograph-in-progress, tentatively entitled, 'Writing on the Wall: Graffiti and the Forgotten Jews of Late Antiquity,' which is presently under contract review with a major university press.

Media Coverage

The Wit and Wisdom of Ancient Jewish Graffiti (Media Coverage)
Author(s): Eve Kahn
Publication: Atlas Obscura
Date: 5/24/2018
Abstract: Review of research on Jewish graffiti and associated book

Associated Products

Writing on the Wall: Graffiti and the Forgotten Jews of Antiquity (Book)
Title: Writing on the Wall: Graffiti and the Forgotten Jews of Antiquity
Author: Karen B. Stern
Editor: Fred Appel
Abstract: Few direct clues exist to the everyday lives and beliefs of ordinary Jews in antiquity. Prevailing perspectives on ancient Jewish life have been shaped largely by the voices of intellectual and social elites, preserved in the writings of Philo and Josephus and the rabbinic texts of the Mishnah and Talmud. Commissioned art, architecture, and formal inscriptions displayed on tombs and synagogues equally reflect the sensibilities of their influential patrons. The perspectives and sentiments of nonelite Jews, by contrast, have mostly disappeared from the historical record. Focusing on these forgotten Jews of antiquity, Writing on the Wall takes an unprecedented look at the vernacular inscriptions and drawings they left behind and sheds new light on the richness of their quotidian lives. Just like their neighbors throughout the eastern and southern Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, Arabia, and Egypt, ancient Jews scribbled and drew graffiti everyplace--in and around markets, hippodromes, theaters, pagan temples, open cliffs, sanctuaries, and even inside burial caves and synagogues. Karen Stern reveals what these markings tell us about the men and women who made them, people whose lives, beliefs, and behaviors eluded commemoration in grand literary and architectural works. Making compelling analogies with modern graffiti practices, she documents the overlooked connections between Jews and their neighbors, showing how popular Jewish practices of prayer, mortuary commemoration, commerce, and civic engagement regularly crossed ethnic and religious boundaries. Illustrated throughout with examples of ancient graffiti, Writing on the Wall provides a tantalizingly intimate glimpse into the cultural worlds of forgotten populations living at the crossroads of Judaism, Christianity, paganism, and earliest Islam.
Year: 2018
Primary URL:
Primary URL Description: Worldcat
Secondary URL:
Secondary URL Description: Princeton University Press website
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Type: Single author monograph
ISBN: 9781400890453
Copy sent to NEH?: Yes

Reading Between Lines: Late Ancient Jewish Mortuary Practices in Text and Archaeology (Article)
Title: Reading Between Lines: Late Ancient Jewish Mortuary Practices in Text and Archaeology
Author: Karen B. Stern
Abstract: Discussions of corpse contact impurity in biblical, as well as Palestinian and Babylonian rabbinic texts, have shaped scholarly assumptions that ancient Jews generally avoided spaces associated with the dead. While rabbinic writings repeatedly consider suitable responses to death, including procedures for corpse treatment, funerals, and mourning, few ancient texts discuss activities Jews once conducted at graveside to commemorate the dead through time. Even if rabbinic texts do not explicitly document the practice, however, analyses of neglected archaeological data from Levantine and European burial caves, including textual and pictorial graffiti, reveal that some ancient Jews did spend time close to the dead by performing multiple activities of mortuary commemoration around tombs. Hundreds of examples of graffiti discovered in Roman Palestine and in the catacombs of Rome, Malta, and North Africa, this paper suggests, offer rare and tangible evidence, in situ, for how some Jews and their neighbors systematically and diachronically visited and elaborated the interiors of cemeteries after the completion of activities surrounding burial and interment. While excavators and historians commonly use rabbinic texts as frameworks to interpret the contemporaneous archaeological record, this paper thus advocates an opposite approach – the independent and contextual evaluation of artifacts – to facilitate a rereading of ancient rabbinic writings concerning ancient Jewish mortuary practices.
Year: 2017
Primary URL:
Access Model: open access
Format: Journal
Periodical Title: Archaeology and Text: A Journal for the Integration of Material Culture with Written Documents in the Ancient Mediterranean and Near East
Publisher: Archaeology and Text: A Journal for the Integration of Material Culture with Written Documents in the Ancient Mediterranean and Near East