Though not truly historical in bent, something that has come up more than once in the last two years is the concept of signs, and what their purpose is. Sure, they either are alerting the reader of something, suggesting that the reader do something or commanding the reader to do something or all of the above. Think about the typical tri-colored stoplight for a moment.

The green signals someone to go, the yellow warns them that they must soon stop for it is the next person’s turn to go, and the red commands the driver to stop. Now the purpose behind the system is to regulate the flow of traffic so that people from all directions can get where they need to go with the least confusion, but there is also the implied fear that there will be accidents if that sign (or a host of other road signs) are not placed where they are. Thus the signs are placed for one of two reasons: problems were experienced in the past or are expected or feared in the future.

How is this relevant to history? Well, we have no evidence for much of went on over the course of history in day to day activity. Sure, we have information on generalities, but not specifics, so when we find a sign in a prominent public location, we can speculate on what happened, or what there was a major fear of, and hence extrapolate on what everyday life was like.

To give one specific example, we know that Herod’s temple contained signs warning pagans that if they stepped beyond a certain point in the compound, their lives were forfeit. Was there a rash of pagans running in the temple? Probably not, but the founders were fearful of the prospect, which suggests that there was a large “pagan” presence in Herod’s kingdom and it would be poor form to start executing them. Therefore the signs warning people to stay back out of the proscribed area. This needs to be (and is) corroborated with other sources, but provides a glimpse at how a few words written in stone can help shape how one looks at the past.

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