Writing on the Wall: Graffiti and the Forgotten Jews of Antiquity by Karen B. Stern, Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2018.
“Good luck on your resurrection!” So a passerby wrote in the grave complex at Beit Shearim, in fairly messy (although still legible) Greek in the ceiling and entryway wall of catacomb 20 (p. 92). This somewhat cheeky greeting is one among many charming, intimate moments Karen Stern catalogues in her 2018 monograph, Writing on the Wall: Graffiti and the Forgotten Jews of Antiquity (Princeton University Press). Stern’s volume reviews and synthesizes theories of graffiti through the lens of ancient Jewish evidence from a variety of archaeological sites in the eastern Mediterranean.
The book has a substantial introduction on ancient and modern theories of graffiti along with four chapters on devotional graffiti, funerary graffiti, graffiti found in public spaces, and a short final chapter that reflects broadly on graffiti as historical data. The introduction, “Graffiti, Ancient and Modern” introduces Stern’s capacious working definition of graffiti: “markings (whether words, images, or both) applied in an “unofficial” capacity and in social and dialogical ways, regardless of whether their application was anticipated, lauded, or denigrated by their audiences” (p. 20). This definition, grounded in theories of modern graffiti, is expanded to encompass the ancient evidence, which reflects a wide variety of social attitudes towards the act of inscribing graffiti. Stern especially contrasts the modern expectation that graffiti is inherently illicit with evidence from the ancient world that suggests graffiti was often anticipated and unexceptional, albeit lacking official sanction. The first chapter, “Carving Graffiti as Devotion,” looks at graffiti that speaks to and about divinities, particularly in and around sanctified spaces. Jewish graffiti follows certain patterns, particularly clustering around doorways, as seen in the evidence from the synagogue from Dura Europus. Stern argues that this type of graffiti should be seen as a visual and physical form of prayer, which was performed not only in synagogues but in and near outdoor, non-Jewish sanctuaries, for example, showing heterogeneity in the worship practices of Jewish populations (p. 77). The second chapter, “Mortuary Graffiti in the Roman East,” examines graffiti and mortuary practices, focusing especially on Beit Shearim, the largest grave complex found in the eastern Mediterranean. Stern argues that the evidence shows “some ancient Jews and their neighbors commonly and diachronically visited and elaborated the interiors of cemeteries after they had completed activities of burial and interment” (p. 137). She puts this data in conversation with current debates within Rabbinic studies, arguing that the graffiti from Beit Shearim is an underutilized source in scholarship about demography and social practice in the late antique world. The third chapter, “Making One’s Mark in a Pagan and Christian World,” looks at Jewish graffiti in public spaces, such as the theater or a marketplace, which shows everyday Jews interacting with and moving through a Christian or pagan world. Stern notes the social and performative aspects of these writings, which demarcate Jewish participation in public life. The fourth and shortest chapter is “Rethinking Modern Graffiti through Ancient,” which theorizes graffiti through the ancient examples and evidence she has gathered, inviting further investigation.
The strengths of this book are many: the arguments are clear; the descriptions are vivid; the maps, tracings, and photos are edifying; and the emphasis on everyday life is delightfully concrete and specific. For example, in chapter two, Stern focuses on the experience of walking through the catacombs in an effort to highlight the visual effect a series of individual graffito has on the viewer. Stern’s work synthesizes archaeological and material histories across the Mediterranean, bringing together discussions of the lived realities of a Jews from socio-economic perspectives that are under-represented in rabbinic and other (elite) literary Jewish texts. The body of evidence does leave some things to be desired, as Stern herself readily admits. Graffiti are largely anonymous, brief, and lacking social context. Graffiti are often treated carelessly in the archeological records available to scholars, if they are recorded at all. Her book neither aims for nor achieves a complete record of ancient Jewish graffiti because the evidence she studies is inherently fragmentary. Not only are graffiti often anonymous and stripped of social context, but archaeological records often excludes data on graffiti. Nevertheless, Stern persuasively argues that graffiti can be read for useful information about the past. Individually, the chapters of this book are useful for those interested in funerary practices, devotional practices, temple archaeology, and Jewish-non-Jewish interactions. As a whole, the book is of interest to students of ancient and modern graffiti, social speech performances, and the Mediterranean world.
The book serves as a helpful model for students of ancient Judaism and Mediterranean antiquity, particularly those interested in social history which de-centers traditional, literary sources. There are two major interventions I’d like to highlight by means of a conclusion. First, the book offers a concise theorization of graffiti; as an underutilized resource in historical studies, the careful attention that Stern pays these texts pays dividends, as sketched above. Secondly, her book is useful for collating a diverse array of materials in one spot, bringing together a novel constellation of sources to produce an alternate view of social history. Her work pairs well with an array of recent works on ancient Jewish material history and visual studies, including Rachel Neis (The Sense of Sight in Rabbinic Culture, 2013), Rina Talgam (Mosaics of Faith, 2013), and Lee Levine (Jewish Art In Antiquity, 2013), all of which take quite seriously the material conditions and reflections of Jewish life available to historians. Taking for granted the argument that the lived reality and material culture of ancient people are important historical topics in their own right, Stern focuses specifically on graffiti as an understudied phenomenon in the study of ancient Judaism, aiming to stimulate scholarly conversation by introducing new materials and a methodological model for studying them adequately. That Stern does so in a book packed with photographs of ancient and modern graffiti speaks to the enduring appeal of these images.
Jillian Stinchcomb is a PhD Candidate in Ancient Judaism at the University of Pennsylvania.
Levine, L. 2013. Visual Judaism in Late Antiquity: Historical Contexts of Jewish Art. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Neis, R. 2013. The Sense of Sight in Rabbinic Culture: Jewish Ways of Seeing in Late Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Talgam, 2013. R. Mosaics of Faith: Floors of Pagans, Jews, Samaritans, Christians, and Muslims in the Holy Land. State College, PA: Penn State University Press.