A mysterious message has been found in an underground cave which turned out to house the remains of a Jewish ritual bath, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) said Wednesday.
Found during construction work for a nursery in Jerusalem, the ritual bath, or mikve, dates to the first century A.D. and features walls treated with ancient plaster.
Encoded in symbols and inscriptions, the puzzling message was written in mud, soot and carvings.
The inscriptions are in the ancient language of Aramaic - the language spoken in the time of Jesus - and written in cursive Hebrew script, which was customary at the end of the Second Temple period. This era spans about six hundred years, beginning in 530 B.C. and ending with the destruction of the second Jewish Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D.
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"Such a concentration of inscriptions and symbols from the Second Temple period at one archaeological site, and in such a state of preservation, is rare and unique and most intriguing," Royee Greenwald and Alexander Wiegmann, IAA excavation directors, said in statement.
Among the symbols that are drawn on the bath's walls are a boat, palm trees and various plant species, and possibly the Jewish seven-branched candelabrum known as menorah.
Experts are trying to decipher the message - so far without much success.
"At this point in the research the inscriptions are a mystery," the archaeologists said.
While some of the inscriptions might indicate names, the symbols appear to be common elements in the visual arts of the Second Temple period.
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According to the researchers, the drawing that appears to depict a menorah is exceptional.
"In those days they abstained from portraying this sacred object which was located in the Temple," they said.
The reason why, the symbols and the inscriptions were drawn in the ritual bath, of all places, is another mystery.
"Who is responsible for painting them? Was it one person or several people? Was it someone who jokingly wanted to scribble graffiti, or perhaps what we have here is a desire to convey a deeply spiritual and religious message, perhaps even a cry for help as a result of a traumatic event?" the archaeologists wondered.
The fragile wall paintings have now been removed from the ritual bath and transferred to conservation laboratories for further treatment and stabilization.
The Israel Antiquities Authority plans to display the inscriptions to the general public in the future.