Hold the camels: 2,000-year-old cistern in Beersheba engraved with sea vessels
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Hold the camels: 2,000-year-old cistern in Beersheba engraved with sea vessels

Archaeologists believe that whoever carved boats into the landlocked water storage pit had technical knowledge of their construction

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • Engravings of ships and zoomorphs were discovered during an archaeological excavation executed by the Israel Antiquities Authority in Beersheba, summer 2018. (Davida Eisenberg-Degen/IAA)
    Engravings of ships and zoomorphs were discovered during an archaeological excavation executed by the Israel Antiquities Authority in Beersheba, summer 2018. (Davida Eisenberg-Degen/IAA)
  • The cistern in which engravings of ships and zoomorphs were discovered during an archaeological excavation executed by the Israel Antiquities Authority in Beersheba, summer 2018. (Davida Eisenberg-Degen/IAA)
    The cistern in which engravings of ships and zoomorphs were discovered during an archaeological excavation executed by the Israel Antiquities Authority in Beersheba, summer 2018. (Davida Eisenberg-Degen/IAA)
  • Engravings of ships and zoomorphs were discovered during an archaeological excavation executed by the Israel Antiquities Authority in Beersheba, summer 2018. (Davida Eisenberg-Degen/IAA)
    Engravings of ships and zoomorphs were discovered during an archaeological excavation executed by the Israel Antiquities Authority in Beersheba, summer 2018. (Davida Eisenberg-Degen/IAA)
  • Engravings of ships and zoomorphs were discovered during an archaeological excavation executed by the Israel Antiquities Authority in Beersheba, summer 2018. (Davida Eisenberg-Degen/IAA)
    Engravings of ships and zoomorphs were discovered during an archaeological excavation executed by the Israel Antiquities Authority in Beersheba, summer 2018. (Davida Eisenberg-Degen/IAA)
  • Dr. Davida Eisenberg-Degen, a specialist in Rock Art and Graffiti at the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA)
    Dr. Davida Eisenberg-Degen, a specialist in Rock Art and Graffiti at the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA)

A newly discovered water cistern in the landlocked desert city of Beersheba has turned out to be the 2,000-year-old canvas for a series of engravings depicting 13 sea vessels and even a sailor to steer them.

Technical details are included in some of the ship drawings etched into the cistern’s plaster walls, which suggests the graffiti artist had practical knowledge in ship construction, said Dr. Davida Eisenberg-Degen, a specialist in Rock Art and Graffiti at the Israel Antiquities Authority, in an IAA press release.

The art-covered cistern was uncovered during IAA excavations ahead of the construction of a new Beersheba neighborhood, Rakefet. The roughly 12 meter (39 foot) deep water storage pit, with an area of 5 x 5.5 meters, is thought to have been used by a nearby first century Roman era domicile, up through recent times. In excavating the sediment fill, archaeologists uncovered World War I-era ceramic sherds, ammunition shells and other weapon parts.

“The shape and form of the cistern, the technique of hewing and plastering, suggest that the cistern is of the first-second century CE, and likely served the residence of a Roman period site situated some 800 m. away, recently excavated by Dr. Fabian and Dr. Cohen-Sason of Ben Gurion University of the Negev,” said Eisenberg-Degen in an IAA press release.

Engravings of ships and zoomorphs were discovered during an archaeological excavation executed by the Israel Antiquities Authority in Beersheba, summer 2018. (Davida Eisenberg-Degen/IAA)

In excavating the cistern, archaeologists Eisenberg-Degen and Avishay Levi-Hevroni discerned faint engravings on its walls, including boats, a sailor, and zoomorphs, or animalistic shapes.

‘Writing on the Wall: Graffiti and the Forgotten Jews of Antiquity,’ by Karen B. Stern. (courtesy)

It is not unusual to discover graffiti in archaeological excavations, but until recently, few archaeologists have made a thorough study of these informal engravings. A recent book by Brooklyn College of the City University of New York’s Dr. Karen B. Stern goes a long way toward filling that gap.

In a newly published Princeton Press publication, “Writing on the Wall: Graffiti and the Forgotten Jews of Antiquity,” Stern discusses the “capaciousness” of this category of art and its many media.

Stern argues that graffiti “retain information that most other genres of textual or documentary evidence distinctly lack.” Unlike classical scholarly or religious texts carefully maintained and transmitted through generations, graffiti, she writes, brings into focus “genres of archaeological data more suitable for the discussion of Jewish daily life.”

Engravings of ships and zoomorphs were discovered during an archaeological excavation executed by the Israel Antiquities Authority in Beersheba, summer 2018. (Davida Eisenberg-Degen/IAA)

Not infrequently, graffiti is preserved in tombs. Stern cites the Beit Shearim tomb complex in the Lower Galilee, which is roughly contemporary to the recently discovered Beersheba engravings. Here there are a plethora of ships “of various styles, shapes, and degrees of elaboration.” Similar to the Beersheba drawings, these ships are depicted with technical details, including a curved hull and mast, billowing sails, oars and anchors, writes Stern.

In the fascinating book, Stern references other ship graffiti found in tombs, including the Maccabean period “Jason’s Tomb” in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood, tombs from the Shefela regions and elsewhere in Jewish contexts such as Rome and Malta.

Engravings of ships and zoomorphs were discovered during an archaeological excavation executed by the Israel Antiquities Authority in Beersheba, summer 2018. (Davida Eisenberg-Degen/IAA)

Perhaps the ships have to do with beliefs about life’s journey coming to an end, writes Stern. She acknowledges that while there is likely significance in the use of sea vessel symbolism in tombs, the “precise explanation… remains somewhat elusive.”

The explanation for the ships’ depictions in the Beersheba water cistern is still equally elusive. However, soon the general public will be able to decide for themselves: Subsidized by the Umbrella Agreement and Development of New Neighborhoods, the cistern will be preserved and incorporated into Rakefet’s “green space.”

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