“Listen, Israel“ in Burgenland during Roman Times

Daniela Tomasovsky

Die Presse (03/12/2008)

Austria’s oldest Jewish find - an amulet made of gold, dating back to the 3rd Century A.D. and imprinted with a Hebrew blessing, was found in an ancient burial ground by Halbturn.

In an ancient child’s grave in Halbturn, archeologists made a sensational find: an amulet made of gold, upon which is written a Hebrew blessing. It dates back to the early 3rd Century A.D., making it Austria’s oldest Jewish find. It is a clear indication that people with Jewish faith lived in our region already during the time of the Roman Empire.

“Listen Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one,” reads the inscription written in Greek letters and Hebrew text. “The quote comes from 5 Moses 6.4 and is part of the “Listen Israel,” which Jews spoke  as a crucial avowal” during the 3rd Century as well as today, says Jewish scholar Armin Lange. “It emphasizes the unity of God vis-à-vis the Polytheism of Antiquity and the belief in the Trinity of the Christianity. Judaism meant and still means that God is one! The “Listen Israel” can be found in Jewish prayer sayings and in the Mezuzot. Those are sayings which in ancient times were mounted on the doors of Jewish households. They were to protect one from all harm and any demons.”  

Made by a Jewish Sorcerer  
He who reads the text of the “Listen, Israel” doesn’t think about warding off demons. “The amulet’s text could only have had meaning for Jews who during ancient times hung small tablets with the saying at their doors,” explains Lange. He presumes that the amulet from Halbturn was made by a Jewish sorcerer for a Jew. “Other Greek amulets were found in the vicinity of Carnuntum (the origin of an important Roman army camp located close to Vienna), indicating that the sorcerer had lived in Carnuntum. The amulet from Halbturn is, thus, the oldest object bearing witness to the existence of Jewish life in Austria. Whether the child’s grave is a Jewish grave is something we can only presume but not prove.”

Until now the presence of Jews on Austrian soil, beginning initially with the 9th Century, can be attested to by texts from the Middle Ages. “During Antiquity, Jews had lived already in parts of the province of Pannonia (ancient province of the Roman Empire), which belongs today to Hungary, Croatia and Serbia,” explains Hans Taeuber:  “Gravestones and small finds, above all, imprinted texts which mention synagogues or prayer houses, testify to this fact.” Amulets, like this one, were very usual throughout the entire Roman Empire – they were used to protect against illnesses and threats. ”One has also found amulets in Carnuntum. One of them called for the goddess Artemis to intervene in fighting off the migraine demon, Antaura.”

In 1986 the field of gravestones was discovered accidentally. “A field hand working at Wittmannshof (a vineyard area located close to the Castle of Halbturn), had torn  open a grave stone out of the ground while plowing. Burgenland’s Regional Museum quickly organized an excavation and dug up two of the graves. The procedure left no damage,” explains head of the project Falko Daim, today executive director of the Roman-Germanic Central Museum of Mainz in Germany.

Spanning Three Hundred Years Ago Three Hundred Graves
Daim realized that there may be other finds and commissioned a project to be carried out by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF). “From 1988 until 2002 we excavated three hundred graves. The field of graves lies to the west of a Roman estate. With help of the most modern methods of exploring archeological sites without excavation (as for example by measuring ground resistance), we were able to draw exact plans of its buildings. The villa proves to have been a self-sustaining, agricultural farm, which secured its survival through crop production and animal husbandry,” says Daim.

The field of graves were “in use” for about three hundred years – from the middle of the 2nd to the middle of the 5th Century. “The graves, with all of their configurations, reveal a well, thought-out system, which designated a place of burial for each person,” explains archaeologist Nives Doneus. Dead infants or the handicapped were not burned, meaning that they were not fully integrated into the community. “Also the child, to whom the amulet belonged, was not burned. It is the skeleton of a one to two-year old child, which was buried in a wooden casket. Next to the amulet we found the usual belongings of a grave: a coin, a clay pot, a glass pot, and a lamp made of clay. These are the items which the survivors considered the dead would need,” says Doneus.

What was striking was the elaborate form of the grave. “The grave is huge – three times as large as the child. The question is: Why did one put so much effort into it? It had probably something to do with how it was valued. One could speculate that it was a wealthy family that had enough money to acquire such an amulet.  But, as has already been said, that would only be speculation.”