Aramaic is the lingua franca of the ancient Middle East, the linguistic root of modern day Hebrew and Arabic.
"Once you understand Aramaic," says Karen Stern, "you can read anything. You can read Hebrew, you can read Phoenician. I always call it the little black dress of Semitic languages."
Stern, 35, is an archaeologist and an assistant professor in the history department at Brooklyn College. Her passion is the tomb graffiti of the ancient Jews in what was then Roman Palestine. Graffiti has been "published, but sort of disregarded," she says. "Whereas I think it is intimate, vocal and spontaneous, and adds to the historical record..."
Jewish people came to live or be buried here from all over the ancient world, according to Beit She'arim manager, Revital Weiss.
"We have a burial place from the Lebanon community, from Syria — the farthest one is from Yemen," Weiss says.
Jews were exiled from Jerusalem after a revolt in A.D. 132. Beit She'arim, established by a fabled Jewish rabbinical prince, Judah, became a refuge for him and his followers....
It's in the Cave of Coffins that Stern points to two inscriptions in ancient Greek. They are tiny and clustered near niches once holding oil lamps.
One says, "Take courage, Holy Parents of Pharcitae, udes adonitas — no one is immortal." Stern explains that the dead who are being brought into the catacombs shouldn't feel that they are weak just because they've passed on.
She reads aloud the other inscription: "Good luck on your resurrection."
"Of course, resurrection is not in the Jewish tradition," says Emma Maayan Fanar, a professor of Byzantine art at the University of Haifa, who has teamed up with Stern. "It's very uncommon."
Tiny menorahs are scattered as engravings throughout the tomb, a symbol of the Temple in Jerusalem and a symbol of the endurance of the Jewish faith...
"They were grapho-maniacal," Jonathan Price, head of the classics department at Tel Aviv University, says of the ancient Jews who were entombed here in the first and second centuries.
Over the next decade, Price and a group of scholars plan to publish many volumes of inscriptions from walls, pots, glass — everything but books — dating from the time of Alexander the Great to that of the Prophet Muhammad.
They will include many languages, such as Hebrew and Aramaic dialects like Syriac, Nabatean and Samaritan.
Price describes the graffiti as "a spontaneous verbal outburst" that adds intimacy to the historical record of the ancient Levant and Mesopotamia.
"These cultures wrote everything," he says. "They recorded their personal lives, their public lives; empires recorded themselves. They were hyperlinguistic..."