Archaeologists Surprised To Find "Comic Book" Style Murals In Ancient Greco-Roman Tomb

The figures' actions and exclamations are narrated by text written in Aramaic, the local language of the Levant area, using the Greek alphabet. This strange combination of features is a unique display in Greco-Roman art. © CNRS HiSoMA

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 clearing of the site of Capitolias, with the assistance of Dionysos and other gods. Depictions of deities interacting with mortals in this way are exceedingly rare in Greco-Roman art. © CNRS HiSoMA.

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.

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