Christopher Rollston has given his analysis of the new ceramic fragment discovered in excavations at Jerusalem. He suggests a date in either the 11th or 10th century BC, reads it left-to-right, and proposes the reading mqlḥ nr š (‘pot of Ner. [?]’). His analysis is carefully reasoned and cogent, which is not surprising given his vast epigraphical expertise. His analysis can be read at Rollston Epigraphy. I include here Chris’ own facsimile drawing of the fragment:
Gershon Galil also shared his own proposed transcription of the fragment with me, and with others on the biblical studies list. He reads it right-to-left as [… – נת]ן [תת]ן חלקם], translating this as ‘give them their share’. While I can see the possibility in the letter forms, I think this suggestion relies too heavily on filling the lacunae. Also, I’m not sure this is the kind of thing that would be incised into wet pots before firing. If this were an ink inscription on an ostracon, I think Gershon’s suggestion would be more pertinent.
Chris Rollston’s reading has the appeal of making good sense of an inscription written into the shoulder of a pithos jar. I commend his analysis and think it’s the most plausible to date, so I’m going with his proposals (even over my own tentative suggestions).
There are still some curiosities, though.
First, the word Chris proposes for ‘pot’ (מקלח, mqlḥ) is used in 1 Samuel 2.14 and Micah 3.3, though in a slightly different form there. He argues that the mem (מ) is most likely a noun maker, which is in itself a reasonable suggestion—it is a common Semitic phenomenon. However, this word for ‘pot’ is a loanword from the Egyptian qrḫt. It would be unusual for a loanword of this kind to come prefixed with a noun-making mem. Chris does admit that the mem may be at the end of a previous word or the prefixed preposition ‘from’ (מן, mn). I would say the first of these is the more likely scenario, since ‘from’ in this context would appear problematic.
This then raises another issue, namely that the inscription would apparently not employ any gaps or word dividers to separate words. It is not unusual for a construct expression like ‘pot of Ner’ to be without word division, and it would be no curiosity to have an entire inscription, especially a short one, without any word division at all. However, there is an apparent gap before the rightmost letter of the inscription, which Chris tentatively identifies as shin (ש). If the mem (מ) is indeed the last letter of a previous word, the apparent gap in front of the rightmost letter could only have three possible explanations: Either (1) the rightmost figure is actually the first letter of the entire inscription that was written left-to-right around the neck of the pithos jar with ‘pot of Ner’ being the final portion of it; or (2) there is a letter (or an aborted letter in which a mistake was made) in this lacuna, but it is situated below the breakage line and, therefore, is not visible. Chris does entertain the possibility of a daleth (ד) in the lacuna, which would be appropriate in terms of its height and position. However, like Chris, I don’t think the expression mqlḥ nrd (‘pot of nard’) is plausible, since it is highly unlikely that nard was stored in pithos jars. Both the size and the openness of pithos jars precludes the storage of such a valuable luxury liquid commodity. If there is a daleth (ד), or another letter entirely, in this gap, I think we would have to see it as abnormally low. Therefore, I propose we see the rightmost letter as the putative first letter of the entire inscription.
Another interesting thing about Chris’ proposal is the possibility of an 11th century BC date. We will need to wait a few more seasons for excavations at the Ophel in Jerusalem to progress, affording us a more complete picture of the strata there. Eilat Mazar reported the fragment as coming from the Iron IIa level, which would be 10th century, so I’m cautious about dating the fragment much earlier than that. Either way, it’s significant to find this small evidence of at least a modicum of literacy in the Judean highlands at this time.
As ever, a personal inspection of the fragment itself is the best way to make the firmest conclusion. Reliance on photos and drawings has its unwitting setbacks (see, for example, my analysis of the extra letter on the Tel Dan Inscription that is masked by the extant photos).
Finally, I hope Eilat Mazar’s team might be able to tell us what the contents of this pithos jar, and the other six jars found at the particular location, were. There might have been traces of the contents when they fragments were originally found, though cleaning may have eradicated these. We’ll wait and see.