Archaeology / Rabbinic Literature / Scholarship

“The archaeological remains in Babylonia reveal few clear markers of Jewish identity”

The archaeological remains in Babylonia reveal few clear markers of Jewish identity. In the Greek and Roman world, with their so-called epigraphic habit, plenty of inscriptions have been unearthed that attest to a Jewish presence. We find the seven-branched candelabrum and donative inscriptions by private individuals on public buildings and in burial tombs that convey Jewish identity. Once we cross over into the Persian realm, however, archaeology is far less helpful. Inscriptions of any kind are a rarity, and the ones that exist were almost in- variably written by kings. The Jewish iconography familiar from the Roman world that might point to the presence of a synagogue was simply not practiced in these parts. There is one distinctively Jewish kind of epigraphic artifact typical of Iraq: clay bowls with magic inscriptions written in the inside. These have been uncovered in the hundreds. But here, too, there is a problem. Only a few of the bowls have reached us through regulated excavations; the vast majority have surfaced through the black market, the result of pillage, particularly in recent decades in the wake of the political upheavals affecting the county. With scholars denied the ability to provenance these finds either geographically or stratigraphically, critical data on Jewish settlement patterns has been lost.

Geoffrey Herman, “‘There we sat down’: Mapping Settlement Patterns in Sasanian Babylonia”, Studying the Near and Middle East at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton 1935-2018, ed. Sabine Schmidtke (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2018), 6.