For Karen B. Stern Gabbay, making her way through the ancient tunnels and caves of ancient mortuary complexes in Israel is all in an ordinary day’s research. Her goal is to find and study carvings—pictures and texts—inscribed at the burial sites, carvings that the history professor calls graffiti, because unlike epitaphs, the inscriptions were made after the tombs or monuments were finished. Some of these carvings date back more than 2,000 years. Many are crudely executed. Still, they are no less important to the field of archeology.

Considered, until recently, a form of defacement or desecration, the graffiti in mortuary complexes were part of a more acceptable and widespread cultural practice than archaeologists originally suspected, contends Stern, who obtained her Ph.D. in religious studies from Brown University in 2008.

“Had they been considered a defacement by the people of that era they could’ve been easily removed,” says Stern.

Instead they went untouched, leaving to posterity dedications that memorialize the dead, curses inscribed as warning to people who wanted to pillage or desecrate tombs, and even the names of rabbis mentioned in both Jewish and early Christian writings.

While her interest was originally sparked by graffiti found at the synagogue discovered at the Roman outpost of Dura-Europos in today’s Syria, Stern, who has received a 2014 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities—has done much of her research at Beth She’arim, a vast necropolis carved in the hills near Haifa, in northwest Israel. Its subterranean chambers, once accessed by steps and pathways, contain hundreds of burials from Roman Palestine and its surroundings.

Only one-third of the complex network of caves dating back to the second century B.C.E. has been explored, says Stern, who has also participated in archaeological excavations in Petra (Jordan) and Greece. And though nearly every tomb has been robbed, the graffiti remain largely untouched.

“The people who made these graffiti were intent on leaving their personal imprint in burial caves, and this could provide insight as to how people in that era understood and commemorated death.”

Mostly written in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic (the Levant’s lingua franca of the first millennium B.C.E) the graffiti are frequently placed around door jams or ceilings of tombs, suggesting there was a functional component related to transitions.

“They are a deliberate vestige of veneration and commemoration,” says Stern, who has received previous grants for the project from the Max Planck Institute, as well as from the PSC-CUNY (the CUNY faculty and staff union), the Tow faculty fund, and the Whiting Fellowship, which helped her purchase much of the equipment she needed to conduct her research.

Recently, she found graffiti in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, and in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which she visited with a reporter for the British Guardian and CCTV, the Chinese news network.

“This just confirms that the use of graffiti is not only more extensive than previously thought but that it also cuts across cultural identities and time.”

In large part thanks to her work, these graffiti are now a part of the historical record, “that will help us complete the picture we have of antiquity,” says Stern, who will include her research in her forthcoming book, Writing on the Wall: Graffiti and the Forgotten Jews in Late Antiquity, to be released by the Princeton University Press.