A team of archaeologists of the Friedrich-Schiller University in Jena, Germany, found the oldest archaeological evidence of Jewish culture on the Iberian Peninsula at an excavation site near São Bartolomeu de Messines, in the Silves council.
The marble plate, measuring 40cmx60cm, had the name ‘Yehiel’ engraved in it and other letters yet to be deciphered.
The Jena archaeologists believe the new discovery might be a tomb slab as antlers found close to the tomb slab in the rubble gave a clue to the age of the find.
Excavation leader Dr Dennis Graen said: “The organic material of the antlers could be dated by radiocarbon analysis with certainty to about 390 AD. Therefore we have a so-called terminus ante quem (the limit before which) for the inscription.”
The earliest archaeological evidence of Jewish inhabitants in the region of modern-day Portugal has so far also been a tomb slab with a Latin inscription and an image of a menorah – a seven-branched candelabrum – from 482AD. The earliest Hebrew inscriptions known until now date from the sixth or seventh centuries AD.
For three years, the team of the University in Jena has been excavating a Roman villa in Portugal, discovered some years ago by Jorge Correia, archaeologist of the Silves council, during an archaeological survey near the village of São Bartolomeu de Messines.
The project aimed at finding out how and what the inhabitants of the hinterland of the Roman province of Lusitania lived off. While the Portuguese coast region has been explored well, there is little knowledge about those regions.
Dennis Graen said: “Jordi Casanovas Miró from the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona, a well-known expert for Hebrew inscriptions on the Iberian Peninsula, is sure that the Jewish name “Yehiel” can be read – a name that is already mentioned in the Bible.
“Never before have Jewish discoveries been made in a Roman villa.”
In the Roman Empire, Jews usually wrote in Latin as they feared oppressive measures.
Hebrew, as on the discovered marble plate, only came back into use after the decline of the Roman supremacy.
“We were also most surprised that we found traces of Romans – romanised Lusitanians in this case – and Jews living together in a rural area of all things,” said Dennis Graen.
“We knew that there was a Jewish community in the Middle Ages not far from our excavation site in the town of Silves. It existed until the expulsion of the Jews in the year 1497.”
In the summer, the Jena archaeologists will take up their work again.
So far, they have excavated 160sqm of the villa, but after checking the ground it has already become clear that the greater part of the enclosure is still covered in soil.