Have a look at the many tweets of antiquity. Wonder what social media was like for the average person thousands of years ago? It was similar to today’s tweets online and also similar to graffiti in Sacramento. Both types of media emulate the culture of what was most popular news at the time.
Back then, the ancient media reflected local culture by focusing on graffiti, slogans, and adages. The graffiti even resembled tweets in that they were brief. Read the ancient graffiti in public places. And see how close they came to be 140 words just like Twitter’s tweets.
What modern and ancient media have in common is that ancient media and culture of the common human individual came in the form of graffiti. Check out the March 6, 2012 news release from the American Friends of Tel Aviv University, “Ancient ‘graffiti’ unlock the life of the common man .”
The ancient ancient Greek’ graffito’ from Beth She’arim resembles in many ways the type of graffiti you see scribbled with slogans on some Sacramento fences, reflecting the expressions of the so-called “common individual” because history often is shaped by the stories of kings and religious and military leaders, and much of what we know about the past derives from official sources like military records and governmental decrees. What does the common ‘man’ (or woman) of any age write on public walls when there were no printed media other than what you could write as a scribe?
Currently, an international project is gaining invaluable insights into the history of ancient Israel through the collection and analysis of inscriptions — pieces of common writing that include anything from a single word to a love poem, epitaph, declaration, or question about faith, and everything in between that does not appear in a book or on a coin.
Such writing on the walls — or column, stone, tomb, floor, or mosaic — is essential to a scholar’s toolbox, explains Prof. Jonathan Price of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Classics. Along with his colleague Prof. Benjamin Isaac, Prof. Hannah Cotton of Hebrew University and Prof. Werner Eck of the University of Cologne, he is a contributing editor to a series of volumes that presents the written remains of the lives of common individuals in Israel, as well as adding important information about provincial administration and religious institutions, during the period between Alexander the Great and the rise of Islam (the fourth century B.C.E. to the seventh century C.E.).
There has never been such a large-scale effort to recover inscriptions in a multi-lingual publication. Previous collections have been limited to the viewpoints of single cultures, topics, or languages. This innovative series seeks to uncover the whole story of a given site by incorporating inscriptions of every subject, length, and language, publishing them side by side. Call those tweets inscriptions. They’re like those 140 word tweets in many ways.
In antiquity, the part of the world that is now modern Israel was intensely multilingual, multicultural, and highly literate, says Prof. Price, who has presented the project at several conferences, and will present it again this fall in San Francisco and Philadelphia. When the volumes are complete, they will include an analysis of about 12,000 inscriptions in more than ten languages.
Many people spoke three or four languages — Aramaic, Greek, and Latin — with Hebrew also used for worship and prayers. And Aramaic was spoken widely across the entire Middle East in those times around 2,000 years ago. Then you have the other languages from surrounding areas such as Nabatean coming from the Arabian peninsula, and the various languages spoken for trade with Anatolia such as Greek, Lydian, Lycian, and Phrygian, for starters. So the point is graffiti was widespread.
History’s “scrap paper”
The project represents countless hours spent in museum storerooms, church basements, caves and archaeological sites, says Prof. Price, who notes that all the researchers involved have been dedicated to analyzing inscriptions straight from the physical objects on which they are written whenever possible, instead of drawings, photos or reproductions. The team has already discovered a great amount of material that has never been published before.
Each text is analyzed, translated, and published with commentary by top scholars. Researchers work to overcome the challenges of incomplete inscriptions, often eroded from their “canvas” with time, and sometimes poor use of grammar and spelling, which represent different levels in education and reading and writing capabilities — or simply the informal nature of the text. Scholars thousands of years in the future might face similar difficulties when trying to decipher the language of our own text messages or emails.
Most of these inscriptions, especially the thousands of epitaphs, are written by average people, their names not recorded in any other source. This makes them indispensable for social, cultural, and religious history, suggests Prof. Price. “They give us information about what people believed, the languages they spoke, relationships between families, their occupations — daily life,” he says, in the news release. “We don’t have this from any other source.”
The first volume, edited by Prof. Price, Prof. Isaac, and others and focusing on Jerusalem up to and through the first century C.E., has already been published. New volumes will be published regularly until the project comes to a close in 2017, resulting in approximately nine volumes.
“I was here” is what the social media like some ‘tweets’ say
Graffiti, which comprise a significant amount of the collected inscriptions, are a common phenomenon throughout the ancient world. Famously, the walls of the city of Pompeii were covered with graffiti, including advertisements, poetry, and lewd sketches.
In ancient Israel, people also left behind small traces of their lives — although discussion of belief systems, personal appeals to God, and hopes for the future are more prevalent than the sexual innuendo that adorns the walls of Pompeii. Most people wrote about their hopes and plans, wishes, and dreams.
“These are the only remains of real people. Thousands whose voices have disappeared into the oblivion of history,” notes Prof. Price, according to the news release. These writings are, and have always been, a way for people to perpetuate their memory and mark their existence.
Of course, our world has its graffiti too. It’s not hard to find, from subway doors and bathroom stalls to protected archaeological sites. Although it may be considered bothersome and disrespectful now, “in two thousand years, it’ll be interesting to scholars,” Prof. Price says with a smile, according to the news release.
American Friends of Tel Aviv University supports Israel’s leading, most comprehensive and most sought-after center of higher learning. Independently ranked 94th among the world’s top universities for the impact of its research, TAU’s innovations and discoveries are cited more often by the global scientific community than all but 10 other universities.
Internationally recognized for the scope and groundbreaking nature of its research and scholarship, Tel Aviv University consistently produces work with profound implications for the future. Also see, Archaeologists Unscramble Ancient Graffiti In Israel: NPR. Check out more ancient graffiti sites from other geographic areas at: Graffiti from Pompeii and Ancient Graffiti – Rome – Graffiti left by citizens of ancient Rome.
In Rome graffiti looked closest to ‘tweets’ with secular comments, frequently evaluations of one’s boss. Roman graffiti detail from a wall near the Coliseum, reads, “Dominus est non gradus anus rodentum!” (Translation: The boss isn’t worth a rat’s ass!)
Several other inscriptions were found on the same wall, including “My master is a real cretin, but he was not born on the island of Crete, if you know what I mean.” More information on these ‘tweets’ or rather graffiti from 2,000 years ago can be found at the website, ironically dubbed, “Insult Your Boss Day. (Ancient Rome).” For a time-travel historical novel set in ancient Rome, check out my book, Proper Parenting in Ancient Rome.