Over the last few years. Hannah Cotton-Paltiel and Jonathan Price have spent much of their time far from the comfortable confines of the Ivory Tower, crawling through caves with flashlights in their hands, squeezing into crowded old basements and storage spaces, and rummaging through piles of old stones in private collections, churches and museums around the world. Cotton-Paltiel, who holds the Shalom Horowitz Chair in classics at the Hebrew University, and Price, who chairs the parallel department at Tel Aviv University, are part of the Israeli arm of a unique international project that bears the scientific title Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae.

Work on the project began in 1999 and is expected to be completed in 2017. When it is complete, all of the ancient inscriptions discovered within the borders of the State of Israel will be gathered together in a single comprehensive scientific series. The seven-volume work aims to organise a sea of information that until now consisted of partial, truncated and widely-scattered items; to track down inscriptions that have never been published; and to offer the widest range of contemporary interpretations for those inscriptions that are already known to scholars.

"This is a unique project, without any historical precedent," says Cotton-Paltiel. Adds Price: "The idea has been around for several generations, but it's being realized only now. The final product will provide an invaluable resource for historical research, one which has been lacking until now."

Through Sisyphean and meticulous efforts combined with elements of Indiana Jones-style detective work, the researchers have managed to locate within Israel some 12,000 texts written between the 4th century BCE and the 7th century CE. "From Alexander to Mohammed, from the Hellenistic period to the Muslim conquest," as the two scholars put it.

Some of the texts are dozens of lines in length; others have only a single word. They are written in more than 10 languages, of which Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Phoenician and Aramaic are only a partial list. They run the gamut from letters and receipts inscribed on bits of pottery, through names of deceased individuals written on ossuaries, to historic inscriptions that commemorate important events, people and places. For the contributors, this is the project's most important innovation. It breaks with earlier practice by documenting, side-by-side, multilingual inscriptions that belong to the various peoples that lived in Israel. "Georgians, Armenians, Romans, Greeks, Syrians - everyone who was here was documented," says Cotton-Paltiel, "not just the Jewish people."

In similar projects to date it was the custom to sort inscriptions by language and publish each of them separately. "That division is old-fashioned," Cotton-Paltiel says. "We present them all together, as they are, as an authentic expression of the different societies and cultures that coexisted in our region, and which deserve to be presented in an egalitarian manner."

Among the inscriptions is one in Greek from the Temple compound in Jerusalem that bars gentiles from entering the Temple Mount, and a Hebrew inscription: "Lebeit hatekiya," which was placed in the southwestern corner of the Mount, indicating the site where a shofar was blown to announce the beginning and end of the Sabbath.

"Inscriptions are an important and unique historical source," explains Price. "They provide information in many areas that no other source can provide. It's not just about documenting empires, but also about the history of family, religion, language and culture."

"Some complement, revise or contradict information that exists in other sources," adds Cotton-Paltiel. "There are some matters about which there is no history except from inscriptions - information that no literary source could give you."

One part of the project involves collecting, documenting and cataloging all of the scholarly information that already exists about the known inscriptions. Another part is locating new inscriptions. In several cases, the researchers discovered pieces of the same inscription in different places, and assembled them like a jigsaw puzzle.

"We did not find a personal letter written by Jesus, but from our standpoint," says Price, "any discovery made of a name we did not know before is an important addition. It is no exaggeration to say that we took people who were completely lost to history and restored them to the written record."

Language mastery

The nerve center for the Corpus Inscriptionum project is a small and crowded room on the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University. An enormous filing cabinet on one wall holds all of the information that the researchers have managed to unearth about each and every inscription. Over the years they have combed through journals, encyclopedias, books and monographs going back to the 18th century in search of details about the inscriptions.

Every scrap of information yielded by these sources about any inscription that was ever discovered in Israel is filed here by industrious students. Their qualifications include studying for a degree in classics or ancient history, and knowledge of the relevant languages. Cotton-Paltiel elaborates: "We are not talking about just anyone: These are young people, some of them from abroad, who have mastered Greek, Latin, Aramaic and Syriac, and the Talmud as well."

The scholars are also attempting to photograph or else obtain photographic documentation of as many inscriptions as possible. "We want to see every inscription that can be seen with our own eyes," explains Cotton-Paltiel. "It is not always possible. There are inscriptions that have been lost, have disappeared or been broken, or that were sold on the antiquities market to private hands."

To this end, the researchers enlisted two photographers who know the country inside and out, with whom they scour all the relevant sites where inscriptions are to be found. A partial list includes churches, museums, private collections and warehouses. And not only in Israel: Thus, for example, Prof. Price found himself one day in an abandoned wine cellar in Oslo. The story of what brought him there begins at the end of the 19th century, and involves a colorful and eccentric man who became very famous in the port city of Jaffa in those days.

Plato von Ustinov was a Russian aristocrat who became a German Protestant. After getting to know members of the German Templar movement, he moved to Jaffa and built an estate there. Ustinov, whose grandson was the late actor Peter Ustinov, was a well-known antiquities collector. He lived in Jaffa for 30 years and enriched his collection with local antiquities. "The local Arabs learned that there was a mad Russian who paid good money for antiquities," says Price, "and they would bring him thousands of artifacts that they found in burial caves and local excavations."

In 1913 Ustinov returned to Europe, where he died a few years later. His collection eventually wound up in Oslo. In the 1970s it was traced to an abandoned warehouse by the late archaeologist and journalist Zvi Ilan. Some of the inscriptions were put on display at a local museum, but many others remained far from scholarly eyes.

"Everyone thought it had been lost. Nobody knew what had happened to that collection," says Price, whose own research had led him to Oslo, where "they were very excited to hear that there was still someone who was interested in these inscriptions and wanted to publish them," he recollects. "When we arrived," Price adds, "at first they thought that we had come to try to return the antiquities to Israel." After some persuasion, however, they were permitted to arrange and photograph all of the items, a task that took several days.

Off-limits locales

One of Cotton-Paltiel's tasks was to contact all of the religious institutions in Jerusalem. She says that all of them, including the museum of the Muslim Waqf (religious trust ), responded with great cooperation. The Greek patriarch, for example, issued a special permit giving the scholars access to all the churches and monasteries under his supervision, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Accompanied by a priest and an architect, Cotton-Paltiel discovered genuine treasures inside that church, the traditional site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. She says they found some stones with inscriptions that had nothing to do with the church, which had apparently been "recycled" from other sites - i.e., used to plug up holes in the wall.

The high point of the visit occurred when they entered a room otherwise closed to the public, whose key is held only by an Armenian priest. "He opened the door for us, and there we saw an awfully famous Latin inscription left by Christian pilgrims," she reconstructs excitedly. She photographed and documented it, of course.

The instincts that Price and Cotton-Paltiel have developed allow them to easily recognize and weed out attempted forgeries. For example, Cotton-Paltiel has learned from experience that "there is no such thing as a complete inscription on a stone that is broken on all sides."

Other cases demand more careful scrutiny. "Occasionally you read in the paper about sensations such as inscriptions connected to the brother of Jesus, and so on," explains Cotton-Paltiel. "We will go check them out for ourselves. In many cases we found that in a place where other people found riches beyond the imagination, there were merely worthless stones."

Last week, a front-page story in this newspaper included a photograph of an inscription that was discovered recently in a cave beneath a residential building in Jerusalem's Armon Hanatziv neighborhood. The person who made the discovery is Simcha Jacobovici, a journalist and filmmaker who deals in archaeology. The article said that he believes the discovery is earth-shattering and could potentially change everything we know about Christianity and its founder.

As in similar cases, Price is maintaining a guarded suspicion for now. "I won't believe it until I see it for myself," he says.

"There isn't a museum in the country we haven't been through or that isn't on our list," adds Cotton-Paltiel. "They open the warehouses for us as well and we come there with porters, arrange the findings and document them." The Israel Antiquities Authority, for example, cooperates with them regularly. "We have unofficially become an affiliate of theirs. They feel we are a national project."

In addition, she says they "are in contact with every museum in the world that has antiquities that originated in Israel." Some of them, such as the British Museum and the Louvre, demand payment for the information they provide.

The sea is the only place they have yet to search. "We don't have enough time, but there are loads of things there - inscribed jars and weights, for example," Cotton-Paltiel says.

Renowned scholars

As one might expect, the project is composed of renowned scholars in a variety of fields, who complement each other's knowledge. Thus, historians work alongside philologists and archaeologists. The distinguished list of participants includes: Benjamin Isaac, professor of ancient history at Tel Aviv University; paleographer Dr. Ada Yardeni, author of "The Book of Hebrew Script" and designer of a Hebrew typeface that bears her name; Dr. Haggai Misgav and Dr. Leah Di Segni, both epigraphers from the Hebrew University's Institute of Archaeology; and Prof. Alla Kushnir-Stein, an expert on Land of Israel history and epigraphy from Tel Aviv University.

The project's digital database contains a record of the written and photographed material and its scholarly analysis. It already contains several thousand gigabytes of material. After the material has been collected and analyzed in Israel, it is sent to the University of Cologne, location of the second arm of the project. Leading the German branch are professors Werner Eck and Walter Ameling, historians and epigraphists who are considered the leading experts in their field worldwide. Working alongside them is Marfa Heimbach, who built an electronic database customized to the needs of the project. Funding for the project also comes primarily from Germany. The DFG, the German Research Foundation, has already provided some 1 million euros and is expected to continue to fund the endeavor.

So far two of the seven projected volumes in the series have been published: the first section of the first volume on Jerusalem inscriptions and the second covering Caesarea and the mid-coastal area. Later this month a second section of the volume on Jerusalem will appear, and it will be followed by, among others, volumes on Jaffa and the southern coast (between Tel Aviv and Rafah ); the Negev (including Nabatean inscriptions and inscriptions in the language of desert tribes ); Ein Gedi and Masada; the Jerusalem environs; and the Galilee.

The work on the Galilee region is the biggest and most important part of the project, encompassing the largest numbers of churches and synagogues - "a massive amount of work, a significant share of which has never been published," Cotton-Paltiel says. Once the entire series has been published and the issue of copyright has been settled, it will also be made available online.

And what about inscriptions situated in sites within the Palestinian Authority? "At an early stage efforts were made to bring Palestinian scholars onto the team of editors for the project," responds Cotton-Paltiel. Despite the initial enthusiasm, for reasons not in control of either party, the cooperation "did not reach fruition." Hence, she acknowledges, "At the moment our project is limited to the State of Israel." In the future, she hopes, the project's scholars or their successors will be able to complete the job also in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.