A stone bearing an inscription in Greek from the end of the Byzantine period in what is now Israel was discovered in the confines of the Nitzana National Park in the Negev. The flat, round stone, c. 25 cm. in diameter, was used as a tombstone in one of the cemeteries surrounding the ancient settlement. The stone was found by a “Project 500” worker from the Israel Parks and Nature Authority while cleaning and preparing nature paths in the Nitzana National Park.
The stone was left at the head of the path when it was noticed by David Palmach, the director of the Nitzana Educational Village, who realized that it bore an inscription. Palmach photographed and collected it to prevent looting. He also contacted the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Israel Antiquities Authority, and the inscription is being transferred to the National Treasuries Dept.
The inscription was deciphered by Dr Leah Di Segni of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and it refers to “Blessed Maria, who lived an immaculate life” and died on February 9th. The stone dates from the late sixth–early seventh centuries CE.
According to Tali Erickson-Gini of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “Nitzana is renowned as a key site in research into the transition between the Byzantine and the Early Islamic periods. During the fifth and sixth centuries CE, Nitzana acted as a center for the villages and settlements in the vicinity. Among other things, it had a military fortress as well as churches, a monastery and a road station that served Christian pilgrims traveling to Santa Katarina, which believers regarded as the site of Mount Sinai.”
According to Dr Erickson-Gini, Nitzana was founded in as early as the third century BCE as a Nabatean road station on a major trade route and the place was inhabited intermittently for about 1300 years, until it was abandoned in the tenth century CE and its name was forgotten.
Archaeological excavations at the site in the 1930s unearthed a papyrus archive, and the name ‘Nessana’ was rediscovered. The burial-stone find, naming the deceased as Maria, joins other stones commemorating Christians buried in the churches and cemeteries around Nitzana that have been unearthed in excavations by the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, among others.
Israel Antiquities Authority Southern District archaeologist Pablo Betzer says, “Unlike other ancient towns in the Negev, very little is known about the burial grounds around Nitzana. The find of any inscription such as this may improve our definition of the cemeteries’ boundaries, thus helping to reconstruct the boundaries of the settlement itself, which have not yet been ascertained.”