A Seal of King Hezekiah

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem has announced the discovery of an ancient ‘bulla’ (a clay seal with a personal stamp impressed upon on it) bearing the name of Hezekiah, King of Judah. This is not the first seal bearing Hezekiah’s name to come to light. Nonetheless, it is an exciting find, especially since it was found in situ.

 

The Discovery

This particular bulla was originally found in 2009 during soil sifting at the excavations on the Ophel ridge to the immediate south of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. The soil was part of ancient garbage debris that had been dumped between buildings in the northern section of ancient Jerusalem (Iron II). Eilat Mazar, head excavator at the site, interprets a nearby building as a royal storehouse.

Excavators initially misunderstood the writing on the bulla, reading the name as ‘Hezekiah [son of] Malkiah’. It was only recently, after a second check, that the writing on the bulla was deciphered more precisely and the personal name reinterpreted.

 

The Bulla

Measuring just 13 x 12 mm, the bulla itself is small enough to rest on a fingertip. The writing is, therefore, almost microscopic. An excellent photograph by Ouria Tadmor, however, provides good resolution for analysis.

 

 

The front (obverse) is clearly stamped by a personal seal that includes writing and iconography. The rear (reverse) reportedly bears the impressions of two cords that were held in place by the bulla. This suggests the bulla probably sealed a document of some kind. Unfortunately, the document is now lost—presumably a papyrus of some kind, which probably did not survive antiquity.

 

The Writing

The obverse has two registers, one each on the upper and lower extremities of the seal. The letters are Palaeo-Hebrew, and conform to the epigraphic style we see on a number of seals that can be dated to approximately the early seventh century BC. There is some damage in the upper register, and it is difficult to make out the letters on the far left side of both registers. The words are separated by a small but discernible dot, which is a common practice.

Taking these factors into account, we can offer the following transcription (partially or fully damaged letters are in orange):

לחזקיהו.אח
ז.מלך.יהדה

Belonging to Hezekiah [son of] Ah-
az, King of Judah.

The Hebrew word for ‘son of’ (בן) is omitted. Such an omission was common practice in seals, which were too small to host many letters.

The name is clearly reconstructed to Hezekiah, son of Ahaz. More than this, he is specifically given the title ‘King of Judah’. The word ‘Judah’ appears to be incomplete. The daleth (ד) is only partially visible and the final latter, he (ה), is missing altogether. However, some of Hezekiah’s other seals clearly give the name of the kingdom of Judah in full as יהדה (yehudah). Therefore, we can be confident that the stamp itself did have the fuller spelling of ‘Judah’ on it, but this particular bulla lacks it because of the way the stamp was impressed into the clay.

hezekiahs-seal-3

Drawing of a scarab beetle bulla of Hezekiah. The top line reads יהדה (‘Judah’), and the bottom line reads לחזקיהואחזמלך (‘belonging to Hezekiah [son of] Ahaz, king’).

 

King Hezekiah

Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, is known from both biblical and Assyrian sources. The exact dates of his reign are debated, but 715–687 BC are the most commonly espoused dates. The Bible tells us that Hezekiah’s father, Ahaz, made the kingdom of Judah a vassal to the Assyrians, against the advice of the prophet Isaiah (Isa 7–8). Ahaz did this in order to procure Assyrian help against an alliance of Damascus and Israel that was threatening him. This set the dominoes toppling that would see both Damascus and Israel fall to the Assyrian armies and be absorbed as provinces into the Assyrian imperial structure. Hezekiah may have been co-regent for a time with his father, Ahaz, but he at least reigned in his own right just after the downfall of the kingdom of Israel in 722 BC.

While Ahaz was content to be an Assyrian vassal, it appears Hezekiah was not. Instead, Assyrian sources tell us he took the political risk of meddling in Philistine affairs. The Bible portrays Hezekiah centralising his power (including the cult of Yahweh) in Jerusalem, thereby extending his sovereignty over his kingdom more directly. This provoked the ire of the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, who invaded Judah in c. 701 BC. Sennacherib claims to have destroyed 46 cities of Judah and deported their survivors. He even depicted the siege of Judah’s second largest city, Lachish, on the walls of his palace. The Bible tells us that Hezekiah tried to bribe Sennacherib with treasure from the temple in Jerusalem, and even appealed to Egypt for military help. However, all this failed. In his annals, Sennacherib claims to have cooped Hezekiah up in Jerusalem like a bird in a cage.

Surprisingly, Sennacherib did not end up taking Jerusalem. The fact that Hezekiah provoked the unrestrained wrath of Assyria, experienced the full-scale barbaric invasion of his country, which brought Judah to the very brink of destruction, only to emerge still on the throne in an unscathed Jerusalem (there is no layer of destruction or evidence of Assyrian siege in the relevant archaeological strata) with the Assyrian armies returning to Mesopotamia is perhaps one of the greatest stories of political survival against the odds in history. It’s no wonder the Bible attributes this to the divine intervention of Yahweh himself and gives Hezekiah a generally glowing report card.

 

Iconography

In the centre of the bulla is a sun disk. It emits six rays and has a set of wings that curve gently downwards in a posture of protection. The imagery of a winged sun disk is ubiquitous in the ancient Near East. It can be found in Egyptian, Assyrian, Persian, and Ptolemaic iconography. The sun usually is a cipher for the chief deity of the culture to which the owner of the seal belonged. In Assyria and Persia, the disk is often augmented with the depiction of a personal figure—the god Asshur in the case of Assyria, and the god Ahura Mazda in Persian depictions. However, no such personal depiction of a deity is seen in the sun disk here.

There are two options for interpreting the sun disk here.

First, it might be depicting the sun god, showing Egyptian influence. To that end, we note that on the right side of the bulla we see the ankh, the Egyptian symbol for life. The faint vestiges of a second ankh are just visible on the far left side of the bulla also. Hezekiah is known to have appealed to Egypt for military assistance against Sennacherib, though this was unsuccessful. Thus, in his anti-Assyrian stance, Hezekiah may well have absorbed Egyptian influence. Some of his other seals display a scarab beetle, which is clearly influence by Egyptian iconography. Furthermore, we know that in the early sixth century BC—a century after Hezekiah—the sun god was worshipped in the Jerusalem temple, though the practice is condemned in Ezekiel 8.16–18. This particular understanding of the iconography has explanatory power, though it is at odds with the biblical depictions of Hezekiah as an avowed exclusive Yahwist.

The alternative option is to understand the sun disk as a compatible cipher for Yahweh, the national deity of Israel and Judah, and patron deity of the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem. While it is clear that Hezekiah did adopt Egyptian iconography, this does not necessitate his own worship of Egyptian deities. The compatibility of such iconography with Yahwistic religion is seen in a couple of places in the Bible. For example, Psalm 84.12 [84.11 Heb] says, ‘For sun and shield is Yahweh God; favour and glory does Yahweh give.’ In Malachi 4.2 (3.20 Heb), Yahweh declares, ‘But for those who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings’. This verse probably refers to the winged sun disk as a symbol of Persian authority, as the Persians often depicted their deity Ahura Mazda that way. The Persians were also content to identify Ahura Mazda with certain ‘compatible’ deities of their subject peoples, Yahweh being one such deity. Malachi, then, most likely sees Yahweh’s blessing on his devotees as coming through Persia’s favour. The iconography of Persia is, therefore, baptised into Yahwism in such a way that it provides a compatible cipher for Yahweh’s own favour. The iconography on this bulla may well be doing the same thing: using common Egyptian symbols in the service of Yahwism.

faravahar

Relief of a sun disk with depiction of Ahura Mazda from the ruins of Persepolis.

The press release from Dov Smith (Hebrew University, Jerusalem) suggested the two ankh signs on the bulla might be connected to Hezekiah’s recovery from a life-threatening illness, depicted in 2 Kings 20.1–8 and Isaiah 38. The logic was that Hezekiah’s earlier seals contained scarab beetles rather than a sun disk, and were devoid of any ankh signs. The sun disk is suggestive of healing (cf. Mal 4.2 [3.20] mentioned above) and the ankh is a clearly a symbol of life.

As tantalising as the suggestion is, we must urge caution. First, to my knowledge there is nothing that allows us to date the scarab bullae specifically earlier than this sun disk bulla. So the dating is speculative. However, we have only three possibilities for ordering the respective bullae: either (1) the scarab bullae are earlier; (2) the sun disk bulla is earlier; or (3) the bullae are contemporary. So the suggestion is not implausible—just uncertain. But, secondly, the dramatic survival of Hezekiah and Jerusalem in the face of Sennacherib’s invasion is just as plausible an explanation of this seal’s iconography. The symbols might even be multivalent, since Hezekiah had more than one close call in his lifetime—especially if we remember the threats to Jerusalem during the reign of his father, Ahaz. Therefore, the suggestion in the press release is not wildly speculative—it’s a plausible suggestion. However, it’s not the only one.

 

The Significance of Authenticity

This bulla is significant because it was found in situ. That is, archaeologists found it in the course of excavation in Jerusalem. This is different to the other bullae of Hezekiah, which were not found in situ, but rather turned up on the antiquities market from unknown sources. When that happens, we have no way of verifying the authenticity of these bullae, and therefore, we can only make provisional evaluations of them at best. Since this new bulla was found in situ during a controlled dig, we can be confident about its authenticity. And this allows us to say with a far greater degree of confidence that the other bullae purportedly from Hezekiah’s personal seals are probably also authentic.

Two such bullae in particular deserve mention. They are, for all intents and purposes, identical to this ‘new’ authenticated bulla, though they first came to late in the 1980s and 1990s. We have, therefore, three practically identical bullae displaying the same configuration of iconography and with the exact same inscription, and one of them is positively genuine. It’s almost certain, then, that all three are genuine. The unprovenanced bullae were discussed in an article by Robert Deutsch titled ‘Lasting Impressions: New Bullae Reveal Egyptian Style Emblems on Judah’s Royal Seals’, published in Biblical Archaeology Review 28.4 (2002), 42–51, 60.

Furthermore, the discovery of this ‘new’ bulla in the excavations at the Ophel ridge in Jerusalem confirms that we are dealing with strata related to the Judean monarchy in Iron II, and the historical significance of Hezekiah. While these were not really in serious doubt, we still see here a positive corroboration between a number of sources. The authenticity of this bulla sees a very neat intersection between ancient literary sources (Assyrian annals, the Bible) and archaeological artefacts.

 

 

 

 

 

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Have we found a stone block from the Actual Second Temple Building?

Israeli archaeologists have discovered an unusual stone among the many making up the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The Western Wall is the only remaining structure of the Second Temple that was lavishly refurbished by Herod. The stone in question was discovered beneath the soil at the lowest foundations of the Wall. What’s so unusual about it? All the large stone blocks used in the Western Wall are ‘bossed’ masonry. That is, they have a carved margin around the edges that give the blocks a sense of depth. But this one particular stone lacks the margin, making it unique.

Eli Shukron examines bossed stones at the foundations of the Western Wall (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, 2011)

So the question is why is this one stone block unbossed, and why was it buried amongst the foundations of the Western Wall? Israeli archaeologist Eli Shukron has a theory:

This stone came from the Temple Mount, from the surplus stones that were used in the construction of the Temple itself. Those stones were high-quality, chiseled and smooth, like this unusual one, which was discovered among the Western Wall’s foundations. This stone was intended for the Second Temple, and stones like it were used to build the Temple — but it was left unused. The builders of the Western Wall brought it down here because it was no longer needed up above — and this is how the other stones of the Temple looked,” he says, adding, “Anyone who passes a hand gently over this stone feels a slightly wavy texture, just like the Talmud describes.

In other words, Shukron believes that this stone block was originally meant to be part of the actual temple sanctuary building—the heart of the entire temple complex.

Is Shukron’s theory plausible?

Here are a few points on which to reflect:

  1. As the report on Israel Hayom states, Shukron ‘led the Antiquities Authority’s effort to expose the foundations of the Western Wall in the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, an effort that was funded by the Elad non-profit organization.’ Elad, also known as the Ir David Foundation, exists for the purpose of strengthening the Jewish connection to Jerusalem. In other words, it is not a scholarly organisation, but a political one. The interpretation of finds that come from Elad-sponsored efforts must bear this political aim in mind, and realise that there is almost always an alternative interpretation. In this particular case, interpreting a stone block as being from the temple sanctuary building could easily be seen as a political claim to the Temple Mount, which currently hosts the Islamic holy places of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque.
  2. It seems clear now that the Western Wall was not built during the reign of Herod himself. As Shukron and his colleague, Ronny Reich, observe, coins found in the soil used to cover the structures over which the Western Wall was built were minted in the time of Valerius Gratus, the Roman Prefect of Judea from AD 15–26 (the predecessor of Pontius Pilatus). In fact, the coins can be pinpointed to AD 17/18, giving us a date for the beginning of construction at the Western Wall. Shukron and Reich argue the wall was then completed in the time of Agrippa I (AD 41–44) or Agrippa II (48–66). However, the sanctuary building at the top of the temple complex was begun by Herod long before this in 19 BC. John 2.20 states that the temple took 46 years to build. This probably refers to the building of the sanctuary itself rather than the entire complex. Construction throughout the complex continued right up until AD 62—just four years before the outbreak of the Jewish Revolt would eventually see the destruction of the temple complex. So if the sanctuary took 46 years to build, and began in 19 BC, we can date its completion to AD 28. This overlap allows the possibility that a stone intended for use in the sanctuary ended up buried with the foundations of the Western Wall. Shukron’s theory is possible.
  3. As possible as Shukron’s theory is, a key question is why more such stones have not been found. Is it possible that there was a surplus of only one single stone block from the materials used to build the sanctuary? Could surplus stones not have been used in other peripheral structures around the temple complex? Eilat Mazar, director of the City of David excavations, says, “It is hard to construct a theory on the basis of a single stone. If another stone or two like it should be found in the future — and that could happen — that will be a somewhat stronger basis for Shukron’s theory that the stone came from a surplus that had been intended for the Temple of the type that had been used to build it.”
  4. Shukron notes the high quality of the stone when surmising it came from the temple building. Yet perhaps it came from another building within the temple complex, rather than from the sanctuary building itself. After all, the temple complex was enormous and, well, complex. There were numerous courtyards, rooms, and gates throughout it. There is every possibility that the stone had been intended for use in one of these peripheral structures.
  5. Another plausible theory is that the stone in question was a surplus block not from the sanctuary at the top of the complex, but from the Western Wall itself. Perhaps the stone was not needed in the construction of the wall, and so the masons did not bother carving the bossed effect, and ended up burying it rather than trying to haul it elsewhere. These were, after all, giant blocks of stone that took considerable effort to move in a pre-mechanised world.

So have we found a stone from the temple sanctuary in Jerusalem? Maybe, but we just can’t be sure because at present we have no way to corroborate or falsify the claim. What is almost certain is that it derives from the temple complex as a whole, but the stone’s original purpose is debatable. If we had some other stones from the temple sanctuary itself, we would be able to make direct comparison. But such a comparison is currently impossible. Our dilemma reminds us of the words of one particular Jewish figure who lived at the time of the temple’s construction: ‘Do you see these great constructions? Not one stone will be left here on another that will not be demolished!’ (Mark 13.2)

The extensive Holyland model (scale 1:50) of first century Jerusalem includes the temple complex as it would have looked at its completion. Pictured here is the large sanctuary building and surrounding courtyards. The Jerusalem temple was the largest sacred compound of its day.

Map of modern-day Jerusalem’s Old city, showing the location of the tunnel in which excavations at the base of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount are being conducted.

 


Quotes and information about the recent find came from Israel Hayom.

HT also to Antonio Lombatti.

Aren Maeir’s Perspective on the Ceramic Inscription from Jerusalem

On the ANE-2 list, Aren Maeir, Director of the excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath, chimes in with his opinion on the ceramic inscription discovered during Eilat Mazar’s dig in Jerusalem. Aren writes:

Prof. Aren Maeir

Just received my copy of the IEJ issue with the article on the Ophel inscription. I must say that from what I can see from the drawing of the pottery, it appears to me to be a 9th cent. BCE form. As I’m in the field and without the literature, I can’t give exact parallels, but offhand, I would think that they are reminiscent of the so-called “Ajrud Pithoi”.

If this is the case (and as I stated above, this needs to be checked carefully), the only way the inscription can be 11th or 10th century BCE is if these early letters were floating around in the air for a century or so (like the “floating letters” in art by Mordechai Ardon), and then, sometime in the 9th century decided to settle on a pithos rim…

🙂

 

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Gershon Galil’s Perspective on the Ceramic Inscription from Jerusalem

In a previous blog post I referred to Gershon Galil’s understanding of the new ceramic inscription from Jerusalem. Gershon and I have been in conversation about the new fragment and he has elaborated on his particular view. Gershon reads the inscription from right to left as follows:

נת]ן [תת]ן חלקם]

[nt][tt]n ḥlqm

Give them their share

Gershon argues that the inscription and the pithos on which it was inscribed may have had a function similar to the ‘AHK’ inscription published by Gabriel Barkay (‘Your Poor Brother’: A Note on an Inscribed Bowl from Beth Shemesh”, Israel Exploration Journal 41 [1991], 239-241). The ‘AHK’ (אחך, ‘your brother’) inscription was incised on the inside of a late 8th-century BC bowl found in an Iron Age cemetery at Beth Shemesh.¹ In Barkay’s opinion, ‘[I]t was apparently meant to contain food for the poor, who were called אחך — ‘your brother’.’

Accordingly, Gershon argues that it is possible that the first word in the new Jerusalem inscription was also אחך (‘your brothers’), and that the inscription as a whole may have served a similar function to that of the AHK bowl.

_______________________

¹The bowl was originally uncovered during excavations in 1911/12, but not published until 1991.

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Further Thoughts on the Ceramic Fragment from Jerusalem

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:

Christopher Rollston’s facsimile drawing of the ceramic fragment with inscription recently found in Jerusalem.

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.

Update

Gershon Galil elaborates on his own suggestion.

Aren Maeir gives his preliminary perspective.

A New Ceramic Inscription from Jerusalem (10th century BC?)

A new inscription purportedly dating to the 10th century BC has been discovered in excavations at Jerusalem. The inscription was inscribed on the shoulder of a large ceramic pithos jar that was turned up in Eilat Mazar’s excavation in the ‘City of David’ area (just south of the Old City walls). The Hebrew University of Jerusalem has issued a statement about the find, which I copy below at the end of this blog post (see blue section). Two photos accompanied the statement, and I have included them here in this blog post, too.

Here is the first photo:

This jar fragment bearing an inscription in the Canaanite language was unearthed near Jerusalem’s Temple Mount by Hebrew University archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar. Dated to the tenth century BCE, it is the earliest alphabetical written text ever uncovered in the city. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Eilat Mazar; photographed by Noga Cohen-Aloro.)

My initial thoughts:

There is some confusion in the media statement (see blue section below) about the dating of this inscription. On the one hand the statement claims the inscription is in a Proto-Canaanite script and dates to the era before Israelite rule, but then it claims the inscription comes from the 10th century BC and dates to Israelite rule. I think what the statement is probably trying to say is that the letters of the inscription appear to be in a script that is known from the era before Israelite rule, but the piece of pottery itself comes from a period during Israelite rule, specifically Iron IIa (10th century BC).

To me the script certainly looks very old. I’m not sure I’d label it ‘Proto-Canaanite’, though. On first glance I would say tenth century BC seems about right, with the script bearing some resemblance to Phoenician. This is, of course, a preliminary estimate, because although there is a hi-res photo of the inscription here, I’d need to see the pottery up close in person to make a more definitive evaluation.

Also, the statement says that the letters seem to be (left-to-right) mqphn, (possibly) l, and n—that is ן לנחפקמ. I would suggest a few other possibilities (again, this is only on first impression). The first letter (that is, the rightmost) seems to be the top half of a nun (נ) fairly clearly. Then, moving leftwards, there is a gap, followed by some strokes above the breakage that appear to be the upper portions of what may be a beth (ב) that does not quite join up at the top. However, these two strokes could belong to completely different letters, which is perhaps given more weight by the fact that there seems to be the bottom portion of an elongated stroke a little way below. If this matches up with the second of the strokes above the breakage, then I’d suggest it may well be a mem (מ). On that basis, I’d propose the previous stroke might belong to a lamed (ל).

Moving further left, the next letter, which is the first complete letter, is very problematic. It appears to have the shape of a nun (נ), but in reverse (compare it with the first stroke on the very right hand side). Other than nun, though, I can’t see what other letter this might be. So I’m going for it as an anomalous nun (נ).

The next letter seems to be a ḥeth (ח). The next two letters, however, are difficult to decipher. The first is touted as a pe (פ) in the media release, but I’m not convinced. Looking closely at the hi-res photo, I think the right part of the letter is not completely rounded, but has a kink at the point where it bends downwards. Also, I think there may be a small tail stroke on the bottom of that right hand portion. To me, this suggests a somewhat truncated form of tsade (צ), though I couldn’t rule out an odd-shaped taw (ת) either. The next letter was touted as a qoph (ק), and while this is a plausible suggestion, it looks more like a resh (ר) to me. The final visible letter appears unambiguously to be a mem (מ).

Thus, on a preliminary deciphering, I would propose the letters might be read ן למנחצרמ (n lmnḥṣrm). However, since I have not seen the fragment itself and only have the photo to go on, I won’t set that reading in stone (or ceramic!). It is purely a first impression. As I clearly learnt with the Tel Dan Inscription, you cannot rely solely on photographs of inscriptions, no matter how good the photos appear to be. Nothing beats an actual physical inspection made in person, because photos can unwittingly mask critical features (like the extra letter on the Tel Dan Inscription).

What might this preliminary rendering of the letters mean? Well it might refer to something coming from the ‘courtyards’ (ḥaṣerim: חצרים), perhaps of the temple or the palace. Alternatively, perhaps the pithos jar held something ‘from Hadramaut’ (lemin ḥaṣramawt: למן חצרמות)—the biblical Hazarmaveth. The first possibility would be significant in and of itself as providing some evidence of a royal and/or cultic installation in Jerusalem during the 10th century BC. The second possibility would be stupendous, providing evidence of contact between Jerusalem and southern Arabia during the tenth century BC. However, as enticing and sensational as these possibilities are, we have to wait further work on this ceramic piece and get the eyes of a few more epigraphers onto it. We also have to ensure we understand the stratum in which the ceramic piece was found properly. This will come with further excavations in coming years.

Nonetheless, even if this inscription doesn’t quite live up to the deliciously sensational possibilities I’ve just mentioned, it is still significant as evidence of officialdom in (most likely) 10th century BC Jerusalem. The average person generally did not write things into their newly made ceramic jars. It was usually an administrative authority of some kind that needed to do that kind of thing. So this inscription should make us sit up and take notice. It does not tell us who was in Jerusalem, but it suggests that there was someone there with enough officialdom to require large pithos jars to be labelled in some way. This would have been to distinguish the jar either for its source, its destination, its function, its content, or its owner. Thus, this little inscription is a very neat find of considerable historical significance.

The language of the inscription is difficult to ascertain from so few letters, but there is good reason to think it is probably Hebrew. First, it was found in Jerusalem! Second, the ceramic piece probably dates to the tenth century BC. Third, the (visible) mem (מ) might be the masculine plural substantive ending. Fourth, we might have the preposition מן (‘from’) in a form with the preposition ל—a construction known from biblical texts (cf. Micah 7.12) While these last two reasons are still speculative at this stage, it seems sensible, given the first two reasons, to propose that this is a Hebrew inscription—one of the earliest we have (cf. the Tel Zayit Abecedary, Khirbet Qeiyafa Ostracon, and Gezer Calendar).

Feel free to interact with or challenge my suggestions here. As I’ve mentioned, they are only first impressions, so I’m very open to correction, improvement, or updating.

Here now is the official media release from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem:

Inscription From the Time of Kings David & Solomon
Found Near Southern Wall of Temple Mount
in Hebrew University Excavations

Jerusalem, July 10, 2013 —Working near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Hebrew University of Jerusalem archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar has unearthed the earliest alphabetical written text ever uncovered in the city.The inscription is engraved on a large pithos, a neckless ceramic jar found with six others at the Ophel excavation site. According to Dr. Mazar, the inscription, in the Canaanite language, is the only one of its kind discovered in Jerusalem and an important addition to the city’s history.

Dated to the tenth century BCE, the artifact predates by two hundred and fifty years the earliest known Hebrew inscription from Jerusalem, which is from the period of King Hezekiah at the end of the eighth century BCE.

A third-generation archaeologist working at the Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology, Dr. Mazar directs archaeological excavations on the summit of the City of David and at the southern wall of the Temple Mount.

The discovery will be announced in a paper by Dr. Mazar, Prof. Shmuel Ahituv of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and Dr. David Ben-Shlomo of the Hebrew University, following their extensive research on the artifact. Prof. Ahituv studied the inscription and Dr. Ben-Shlomo studied the composition of the ceramic materials. The paper, “An Inscribed Pithos From the Ophel,” appears in the Israel Exploration Journal 63/1 (2013).

Hebrew University of Jerusalem archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar displays a jar fragment unearthed near Jerusalem’s Temple Mount bearing an inscription in the Canaanite language. Dated to the tenth century BCE, it is the earliest alphabetical written text ever uncovered in the city. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Eilat Mazar; photographed by Oria Tadmor)

The inscription was engraved near the edge of the jar before it was fired, and only a fragment of it has been found, along with fragments of six large jars of the same type. The fragments were used to stabilize the earth fill under the second floor of the building they were discovered in, which dates to the Early Iron IIA period (10thcentury BCE).  An analysis of the jars’ clay composition indicates that they are all of a similar make, and probably originate in the central hill country near Jerusalem.

According to Prof. Ahituv, the inscription is not complete and probably wound around the jar’s shoulder, while the remaining portion is just the end of the inscription and one letter from the beginning. The inscription is engraved in a proto-Canaanite / early Canaanite script of the eleventh-to-tenth centuries BCE, which pre-dates the Israelite rule and the prevalence of Hebrew script.

Reading from left to right, the text contains a combination of letters approximately 2.5 cm tall, which translate to mqphn, (possibly) l, and n. Since this combination of letters has no meaning in known west-Semitic languages, the inscription’s meaning is unknown.

The archaeologists suspect the inscription specifies the jar’s contents or the name of its owner. Because the inscription is not in Hebrew, it is likely to have been written by one of the non-Israeli residents of Jerusalem, perhaps Jebusites, who were part of the city population in the time of Kings David and Solomon.

Excavations at the site are conducted in collaboration with the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and the East Jerusalem Development Company. The site is in the national park surrounding the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, near the southern wall of the Temple Mount compound. The Israel Antiquities Authority maintains the excavation site as a national park open to the public.

The excavations are made possible through a generous donation by Daniel Mintz and Meredith Berkman of New York. Participants in the dig include Israeli students and workers, along with students or alumni of Herbert W. Armstrong College sent to Jerusalem from Edmond, Oklahoma to participate in the excavation.

For more information:
Dov Smith

Hebrew University Foreign Press Liaison
02-5882844 / 054-8820860 (+ 972-54-8820860)
dovs@savion.huji.ac.il

Here also is a YouTube clip featuring Eilat Mazar and Shmuel Ahituv talking about the inscription and their understanding of it as a Canaanite (non-Hebrew) text.

Update

Christopher Rollston has given his own analysis. I also have some further thoughts in light of his.

Gershon Galil also elaborates on his own suggestion.

Aren Maeir also gives his preliminary perspective.