In the middle of the Israeli desert wastes, surrounded by sand, stone and the odd lizard, somebody engraved the images of ships and animals on the walls of a lost Roman-era cistern. Though the site is in Be'er Sheva, in the Negev, based on the accuracy of the depictions, the artist knew how to build boats, surmise the archaeologists investigating the site.
The cistern dates to the 1st or 2nd century C.E., based on the techniques involved in carving the cistern and staircase out of the bedrock, and the plastering, all of which are typical of the Roman era, says Dr. Davida Eisenberg-Degen, rock-art expert at the Israel Antiquities Authority.
The cistern was probably created to store water for the Roman-period domiciles found 800 meters away, she suggests. And though not known to today’s city-dwellers, it wasn’t exactly long-lost. Built about 2,000 years ago, the evidence indicates that it had continued to function through World War I.
Then memory of it was truly lost, until its rediscovery during archaeological surveys of ground earmarked for a new neighborhood in northern Be'er Sheva.
It hardly ever rains in Be'er Sheva, though when it does, it pours. The city averages only 200 millimeters of rain a year. It is therefore befitting for the arid conditions that the cistern, built to store water, would be big: 12 meters deep and 5 by 5.5 meters in length and width. One would want to save every drop possible.
At first the Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists didn’t think much of the site – it looked like a depression, they say. But after clearing away debris, they found an ancient carved, plastered staircase, which led down into the depths of the water-storage system. And that is where the archaeologists saw the graffiti.
Ancient rock art comes in two basic types, Eisenberg-Degen explained to Haaretz. Images can be carved into natural rock, which is called petroglyphs; or engraved into plaster coating rocks or walls, which is graffiti.
The art inside the Roman cistern in Be'er Sheva is graffiti. It shows 13 ships, one sailor, and several animals meticulously carved into the plaster covering the cistern walls, say the IAA excavators, Eisenberg-Degen and Avishay Levi-Hevroni.
Memories of the briny
Tel Be'er Sheva is some kilometers east of the modern city. Mentioned 33 times in the bible, settlement there goes back at least to the early Iron Age. While dating is arguable, it seems the city grew and was fortified in the later Iron Age, during the 10th or 9th century B.C.E., though it seems the city may have fallen in about 701 B.C.E to the marauding King Sennacherib of Assyria. In any case, somebody burned it to the ground around then.
Fast-forward to the Roman period, when it seems Be'er Sheva had grown bigger than had been realized until now. Whoever they were - Jews or adherents of other faiths or a mixed community - seafarers they were not.
Yet the ship pictures are technically appropriate and are in correct proportion, suggesting that the artist had actual knowledge of ship construction, says the archaeologist.
“The details are strikingly accurate,” Eisenberg-Degen said. “For instance, the mast is drawn going to the floor of the boat, shows understanding of shipbuilding technique. Ropes are shown near the mast and further away, holding the mast in place, all technical details that show understanding. I wouldn’t have considered that the mast needs to go down to the ship’s base if I didn’t know boat construction.”
Memories of animals
The beasts carved into the cistern walls include a camel, somebody riding a horse, and a lot of horned animals, apparently gazelles.
Note that in contrast to the popular wisdom, camels are not endemic to the Middle East. They came from Asia and reached Israel probably in the 9th century B.C.E., according to Tel Aviv University’s Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen. The camel on the Be'er Sheva cistern wall would have been engraved there about a thousand years after the splay-hooved "ships of the desert" first arrived.
The graffiti inside the cistern is radically different from the rock art strewn throughout the Negev, says Eisenberg-Degen. Negev rock art is mainly petroglyphs, made by hammering or pecking at the bare rock. There is also some graffiti, and some from the Roman period, she says, but the rock art in the Negev is further to the south, from Sde Boker downward. “We’re 80 kilometers from where that rock art begins,” she says.
The age of the Negev petroglyphs is extremely hard to estimate, though some archaeologists surmise that at least certain ones go back to Paleolithic times. Others are tentatively dated to the Bronze Age, and yet others are much more modern, from the Islamic period and even the Bedouin phase of the last 200 years.
Dating the cistern is more certain, though when it fell into dysfunction is less so. The archaeologists think it may have remained operational until World War I, since the sediment fill inside the cistern contained pottery bits, ammunition shells and weapon parts from that great struggle, the archaeologists explain.
“We found a glass container which says it was made in Australia, tons of shells, probably from the Turkish side, and ammunition,” says Eisenberg-Degen.
That’s how it goes in Israeli archaeology. Look for one thing, find another. Just last year archaeologists rooting about Lod, in central Israel, for remains of prehistoric man dating back 250,000 years, found another set of World War I memorabilia - a huge stash of liquor bottles, including of Dewar’s and Gordon’s gin. They had apparently been left behind by British soldiers housed in abandoned Ottoman barracks, who were alleviating the boredom between battles by getting smashed.