PEACE: A Portal of Epigraphy, Archaeology, Conservation and Education on Jewish Funerary Culture
Ortal-Paz Saar, Utrecht University, Netherlands
In the year 829 the family of Rebecca, daughter of Bono, laid her to rest in the ground near Venosa in Southern Italy. Rebecca was sixty-three when she died, a respectable age at that time. Her tomb was marked with a stone bearing a simply carved Hebrew epitaph, adorned with a menorah. About two hundred years after Rebecca’s burial, her tombstone was put to a new use: it was imbedded in the floor of the church of the Santissima Trinità, where it served as a step in front of the great altar. It is there that Domenico Tata, abbot and avid scholar of Hebraism, saw it, copied its words, and included them in his 1778 essay Lettera sul Monte Vulture. By then, centuries of pacing had smoothed one side of the stone, slowly rubbing away parts of its words. Later, at an unknown time, the tombstone was removed from the floor, and propped against one of the churchyard walls. This is how it was photographed by Ernst Munkáczi for his 1939 book on the Jews of Southern Italy. Munkáczi’s photo shows Rebecca’s tombstone standing vertically on the churchyard ground, its seven-line epitaph clearly visible. But if one were to search for it today, they will discover that the first three lines of the epitaph are gone: an unknown hand has cut the medieval stone after the 1930s. Now, the inscription begins with the words “[aged] sixty-three years”. Rebecca’s name, and memory, are lost.
A newly launched international DH project titled PEACE acts towards the preservation of such vestiges of Jewish funerary culture as the epitaph of Rebecca daughter of Bono. PEACE stands for Portal of Epigraphy, Archaeology, Conservation and Education on Jewish Funerary Culture. Funded by a Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe Research Consortium grant, PEACE is meant to serve as a central hub for scholars and the general public who have an interest in one of the above mentioned fields. The geographical and chronological scopes of the PEACE portal are broad and cover the Jewish world as a whole: from the 5th century BCE to the present day, and from the burial caves of ancient Palestine to modern cemeteries in Germany.
At present the PEACE portal concentrates on its epigraphic section. In this initial stage it relies on a research consortium consisting of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, the Steinheim Institute in Germany, and Brown University in the US, with new partners joining in from places such as Spain. The portal currently brings together four epigraphic databases:
1) Utrecht University, Netherlands: Funerary Inscriptions of Jews from Italy. About 800 Jewish epitaphs, dating to the 2nd – 11th century CE, primarily from Rome and Southern Italy.
2) The Steinheim Institute, Germany: Epidat. About 38,000 Jewish epitaphs, dating to the 11th – 21st century, primarily from Germany, but also from some cemeteries in the Czech Republic, Latvia, the Netherlands, and Poland.
3) Brown University, USA: Inscriptions of Israel/Palestine. About 1,200 inscriptions, dating to the 6th century BCE – 7th century CE, from present-day Israel and Palestine.
4) Medieval Funerary Inscriptions from Toledo: A small but highly interesting corpus of ca. 40 Jewish epitaphs, dated to the 13th and 14th century.
Link for web page with search function in the Epigraphy section of PEACE: https://peace.sites.uu.nl/epigraphy/search/
All four databases employ EpiDoc (TEI XML for epigraphic documents), and are compatible with each other. EpiDoc encoding allows for displaying the transcription of a text, as well as a wealth of information about it: details about the text-bearing object (e.g. stone slab), date, location, translation, bibliographical information, etc. Additionally, EpiDoc permits to tag particular portions of the text that are deemed important, such as person and place names, and subsequently to analyze these data along diachronic and synchronic lines.
By harvesting the data of these four databases and merging it into a uniformly structured portal, it is now possible to search for terms and concepts (e.g. names, afterlife (olam ha-ba), biblical verses) as well as specific parameters (e.g. age, sex), and identify historical patterns over time and space. The results are fascinating and hold a great promise for scholars of Judaism, not only funerary culture but many other fields, such as religious and cultural history, onomastics, and art history.
As can be expected, the project is challenging in more than one way. For example, the linguistic aspect of the different corpora is sometimes tricky. These funerary inscriptions use several languages and, at present, three alphabets: the Hebrew alphabet, the Greek, and the Latin one (more alphabets will be added once new partners join the project, for instance with Jewish epitaphs in Arabic). Some inscriptions employ more than one language and alphabet, e.g. Greek and Hebrew. This is challenging in terms of digitization, given the different directions of writing, which sometimes include Right-to-Left (RTL) and Left-to-Right (LTR) in the same text. Another challenge is less technical but content-related: ideally, the PEACE portal will make available English translations of all the inscriptions in the Epigraphy section, so that they are easily accessible to all, scholars and laypeople alike. At the moment, however, only German translations are available for the inscriptions of Epidat, whereas the Italian data, the Spanish, and that from Israel/Palestine is still untranslated. Given the size of the corpora, these translations will require an investment of time and financial resources, that will hopefully become available in the future.
The PEACE portal begins from the Epigraphy section, and aims to invite more partner databases to join their inscriptions into the Search function. The more databases, the more comprehensive the insight that can be gained into the data and its historical patterns. Scholars working on Jewish funerary inscriptions are welcome to email the project coordinator, Ortal-Paz Saar (email@example.com) and explore the various options for future collaboration. These may take the form of building new epigraphic databases for as yet unincluded regions, or allowing an existing epigraphic database to be searched through the portal. PEACE will also expand in the coming years with resources in its other fields, namely archaeology, conservation, and education. Also scholars and heritage professionals specializing in these disciplines are welcome to reach out and initiate new partnerships within PEACE. Establishing an international network of scholars, professionals and interested public will enable the portal to provide a broad and clear picture of Jewish funerary culture across the ages.