In early June 1902, John Peters, an American theologian, and Hermann Thiersch, a German classical scholar, were alerted to the discovery of two painted burial caves at Marisa/Beit Jibrin, less than 40 miles (62 km) by road southwest from Jerusalem. Tomb robbers had, a short time previously, forced their way into the burial chambers and caused damage to their fabric. Realising that these splendid tombs dated to about 200 BCE and the importance of their painted interiors, the two scholars immediately commissioned a leading Jerusalem photographer, Chalil Raad, to record them. This was fortunate, because the paintings on the soft limestone walls rapidly deteriorated and now can no longer be seen. Peters and Thiersch published a monograph on the painted tombs, illustrated with hand-drawn copies of the photographs, but the original plates have lain all these years in the archives of the Palestine Exploration Fund in London, unpublished.
The paintings are unique in the Greek pictorial repertoire and are among the most important surviving examples of Ptolemaic art. The remarkable painted frieze extending along the two long sides of the main chamber of Tomb I depicts 22 different animal species, drawn from the wild fauna of the Levant, the Nile basin and the Horn of Africa - as well as a few mythical beasts. This animal frieze attests to the interest in exotic animals shown in the Hellenistic period. Other remarkable subjects represented in the Marisa paintings include Cerberus, the three-headed guard-dog of Hades, and a pair of elegant musicians in Greek dress.
Timed to coincide with the centenary of the discovery of the painted tombs, a new study on the paintings has been produced by David Jacobson. This study appears as Annual VII of the Palestine Exploration Fund. It contains, for the first time, high quality reproductions of the photographic plates taken in 1902, which are held in the PEF collections. Reproduced with the photographs are the proofs of the coloured lithographs, which are superior in quality to the versions that were published. The inaccuracies and loss of delicate detail of the originals in the coloured lithographs used by Peters and Thiersch for their 1905 publication are clearly apparent. The accompanying text includes an analysis of all the paintings in the light of a century of scholarship and an assessment is made of their religious and cultural significance. Each of the animals in the frieze is compared with descriptions given by ancient writers, and a new interpretation is presented of the cycle as a whole. An appraisal is made of the overall contribution of the Marisa paintings to our knowledge of the art and culture of the Levant in the Ptolemaic period.
Included with this new study is facsimile reprint of the original 1905 publication, now long out of print, and it includes superior copies of the coloured lithographs from that edition. This new publication also reproduces a very rare addenda section prepared by R.A.S. Macalister after inspecting the Marisa tombs in October of that year.