3Rd Century Amulet - Sign of Earliest Jewish Life in Austria

Austrian archaeologists last week announced they had found the earliest sign of Jewish habitation in Austria, in the form of a silver pendant they found inside a third-century C.E. grave, which bears the "Shema Yisrael" prayer.

Researchers from the Institute of Prehistory and Early History of the University of Vienna said they found the pendant in a child's grave at a Roman burial site in the eastern town of Halbturn.

The 2.2-centimeter-long object contained a golden scroll on which the words of the "Shema" are inscribed in Greek.

The child's grave is one of about 300 graves in an ancient cemetery originally discovered in 1986 near Halbturn. Pieces of glass, ceramic shards and metal artifacts were also discovered near the grave site, but experts say there is no proof that the two-year-old boy, or the other people buried at the site, were actually Jewish.

The pendant was identified in 2006 and will go on public display next month in the Burgenland State Museum in Eisenstadt.

The scroll's inscription was incomprehensible at first, according to Prof. Nives Doneus, who discovered it. She says it might have been purchased for the boy by his parents as protection against evil spirits.

"The pendant was unearthed as early as 2000," Doneus told Haaretz last week in telephone conversation, "but because of the backlog we have, it wasn't examined before 2006. I found a hollow silver ornament. I extracted the golden scroll from inside the ornament, but I didn't notice the lettering the first time I examined it."

Only after reexamining the object was Doneus able to observe the Greek lettering. She then gave it to a linguist, who established that the text on the tiny scroll - which can be transliterated as "suma Istrahl adwne elwh adawt n a" - was Jewish in origin. Doneus then passed it on to Prof. Dr. Armin Lange, who heads the university's department of Jewish studies.

The bizarre-looking transcription of the sentence, which appears in Deuteronomy 6:4 ("Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one") owes, according to Lange, to the writer's decision to substitute the word "one" with the first letter of the Greek alphabet, alpha. Lange postulates this was done because of space considerations.

Other mis-transliterations are due to the difference between Hebrew and Greek, which lacks Hebrew's guttural ain and shin, says Lange, who is "completely certain" that the wording on the scroll is the "Shema."

"There are a number of things which set this pendant aside from others like it, which are dated from later periods," he explains. "Usually we see a longer prayer, and it's almost never engraved on a golden scroll."

This scroll, Lange adds, was written by a Jew for a Jew. "If the pendant was meant to protect [a person] from evil spirits, then only someone who knows the prayer and believes in the verse would be content to have such a short version of it," he says.

The grave site, discovered in 1986 in the region of Seewinkel, around 20 kilometers from Carnuntum, was excavated between 1988 and 2002. The findings unearthed there are the earliest proof of Jewish life in what is now Austria, which was then part of the northern territory of the Roman Empire.

The findings corroborate the previous assumption that Jews settled in what later became Austria, Hungary, Croatia and Serbia in the third century B.C.E. The flow of Jewish immigration there increased after the rebellion against the Romans. Many Jews were sold as slaves and were shipped across the empire. Others emigrated of their own accord.