An obituary 1,700 years old has been translated

Story highlights

  • An ancient limestone epitaph has been translated from ancient Greek
  • It honors a Jewish woman named Helene who cared for orphans

(CNN)A 1,700-year-old obituary, which is unlike anything researchers say they have seen before, has finally been translated.

The inscription, written in ancient Greek on a small limestone tablet reveals a woman's name, her religion and what she was like as a person.
    Lincoln H. Blumell, who specializes in ancient scripture at Utah's Brigham Young University, translated the epitaph. Plucked from Egypt, the document had been sitting in the Rare Books Department at the University of Utah's J Willard Marriott Library since it was donated in 1989.
    It commemorates a woman named Helene who cared for and loved orphans.
    In peace and blessing Ama Helene, a Jew, who loves the orphans, [died]. For about 60 years her path was one of mercy and blessing; on it she prospered.
    Associate professor Lincoln H. Blumell from Brigham Young University with the epitaph he translated
    "I knew the University of Utah had a collection of ancient artifacts so I made my way over to see if they had anything interesting and I remember when they pulled it out I was in shock because I immediately recognized it was Greek," Blumell told CNN.
    "I spent the next couple of hours staring at it and started transcribing it."
    He said it took him a couple of hours to have a rough translation, which he later tweaked before publishing the findings in a report.
    The document identifies the woman as Jewish, but strangely also uses a title reserved almost exclusively for Christians. "Ama" was a word only used for nuns and other respected Christian women in late antique Egypt.
    Blumell said the epitaph is an example of one of the first times the word "Ama" was used before it was adopted by Christians.
    It also acknowledges her age, 60, at a time when Egyptian women had a life expectancy of 25.
    While there are many obituaries older than this one, Blumell said this one is still incredibly unique. He said the reference to the woman's faith and her age is what makes the translation significant.
    "I've looked at hundreds of ancient Jewish epitaphs and there is nothing quite like this. This is a beautiful remembrance and tribute to this woman," Blumell said.
    He said the writings "pulled at his heart" and wishes he could find out more about the woman.
    "We have all these questions that we can't answer," he said.
    For the past 27 years, the library where the epitaph was stored identified it as a coptic inscription that dated back to "the dawn of the use of the Greek alphabet, not earlier than the second century, but not later than the third."
    Blumell's findings have been published in the Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman Period.