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.


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)

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.


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.