A large Roman-era tomb unearthed in modern-day Jordan in late 2016 has continually astounded international researchers in the time since due to its remarkably well-preserved art and artifacts, which provide a glimpse into the rich tapestry of cultures present in the region nearly 2,000 years ago.
The consortium of expert historians, archaeologists, conservationists, and architects – who have been studying the site since spring 2017 – are especially delighted by one finding in particular.
The walls of the 52-square-meter (560 square feet) subterranean chamber are adorned with murals embellished with accompanying text describing what the painted figures are doing – not unlike an ancient comic strip, according to the researchers.
"These 60 or so texts painted in black, some of which we have already deciphered, have the distinctive feature of being written in the local language of Aramaic, while using Greek letters," Jean-Baptiste Yon, of the Histoire et Sources des Mondes Antiques, told CNRS News. The combination is rare and will help them better understand the structure and development of Aramaic.
That's not the only unusual thing about it though.
"The inscriptions are actually similar to speech bubbles in comic books, because they describe the activities of the characters, who offer explanations of what they are doing (‘I am cutting [stone],’ ‘Alas for me! I am dead!’), which is also extraordinary."
The tomb was uncovered under the entrance of a school in the town of Bayt Ras, yet in the first century CE, this location hosted the Capitolias, one of the 10 city-states that comprised the Decapolis. Known from historical records to be Roman-ruled but semi-autonomous from the larger empire, these settlements became epicenters of Greek and Roman commerce and expression scattered amidst a landscape of native Semitic cultures.
The chamber comprises of one large room and two funerary rooms, one of which contained a sizable basalt sarcophagus in excellent condition. The abundant paintings, featuring nearly 260 figures in various scenes, are present on three walls of the main chamber and appear to form a narrative that centers upon a tableau of a priest offering a sacrifice to the patron deities of Capitolias and Caesarea Maritima, the provincial capital of Judaea.
To the left of the entrance, one mural depicts gods reclining on beds, feasting on offerings brought by smaller humans while another shows a country landscape dotted with farmers tending to grapevines, gathering fruit, and plowing fields with oxen. Curiously, the next panel shows woodcutters chopping down several types of trees with the help of gods, an exceedingly rare occurrence in Greco-Roman imagery, say the researchers.
On the right wall, a painting shows the building of a stone wall, replete with stonecutters, foremen, laborers, and even several construction accidents. On the ceiling and near the center, there is a more traditional tableau of marine and Nile-based imagery featuring nymphs and symbols of the zodiac.
“Of course other Roman tombs from the Decapolis also offer sumptuous mythological decor, but none of them can hold a candle to this one in terms of iconography,” they shared in a press release sent to IFLScience.
“For all these reasons, the new painted tomb of Bayt Ras is an extraordinary record of religious, political, and social history, as well as an open window on the cultural interactions in a Greek city in the Roman Near East.”
The first results from their ongoing studies will be the presented at the International Conference on the History and Archaeology of Jordan in January 2019.