Hannah died on a Shabbat, the first day of Passover, in 438 CE (photo credit: Courtesy the Israel Museum)

Hannah died on a Shabbat, the first day of Passover, in 438 CE. (photo credit: V. Naikhin. Courtesy of the Israel Museum)

An ongoing series looking at history through one of the 87,000 artifacts in the archaeology collections at Israel’s national museum

What we know about history usually concerns the lives of powerful men. Other lives were not deemed worth documenting, and nothing of them typically remains. But this rectangular piece of sandstone is an exception. It records the forgotten life and death of an ordinary woman.

The woman’s name was Hannah. She was a Jew. Her father traced his ancestry to the priests at the Temple in Jerusalem, though the Temple had been destroyed by Roman legionnaires long before. Hannah lived in a farming town, Zoar, on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea, in what is now the Kingdom of Jordan, and died there on the day after the Passover seder nearly 1,600 years ago.

The stone, Hannah’s grave marker, was looted by tomb robbers at the ruins of her town, surfaced later on the antiquities market, and is now kept in a glass case near an altar to Dionysus in the Israel Museum’s archaeology galleries.

When Hannah was alive in the 5th century CE, the town was ruled by the Byzantine Empire from Constantinople. The new religion of the empire, Christianity, was ascendant.

Close to one hundred Jewish tombstones from Zoar have been found so far, and they include an innovation: They are the first Jewish grave markers to include a date of death. This, scholar Haggai Misgav wrote when he first published details of Hannah’s tombstone in 2006, reflected “new customs and a new worldview.”

“The epitaph, more than simply identifying the grave, invites the living relatives of the deceased to visit the grave on a fixed date each year,” he wrote in the museum’s archaeology journal, such that the burial site “becomes the place where life and death are connected.” 

“In this way, death becomes an integral part of life,” he wrote.

Christian tombstones have also surfaced originating from the same cemetery, meaning that the two communities buried their dead together or nearby.

The craftsman who made Hannah’s tombstone painted Aramaic words in red inside a rectangular frame, adding simple renderings of symbols associated with her people: a menorah, a shofar, a representation of the Temple.

“This is the tombstone of Hannah, daughter of Haniel the priest, who died on Shabbat, the first festival day of Passover,” reads the inscription. Hannah died, we learn, 369 years after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem according to the Jewish calendar, “in the fifth year of the sabbatical cycle.” If she had children or a husband, they are not mentioned.

Misgav, the scholar, calculated the year of her death as 438 CE.

“Peace,” reads the inscription commemorating Hannah, whoever she may have been. “May her soul rest. Peace.”

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