Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Decipherment of the New ‘Incised Jerusalem Pithos’

11 July 2013

The Decipherment of the New ‘Incised Jerusalem Pithos’


Christopher Rollston


During recent excavations in Jerusalem, Eilat Mazar of Hebrew University discovered a large pithos with incised linear alphabetic Northwest Semitic letters. According to press reports, the discovery will be published “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).”

“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 m, q, p, h, n, (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.”
End of Citation of Press Reports


A. Palaeographic Assessment.

The script of this inscription has been accurately described by my friend Shmuel Ahituv as “Proto-Canaanite.” Sometimes this script is referred to as Proto-Sinaitic (because of the prominence of the Serabit el-Hadm Inscriptions) and sometimes this script is referred to as Early Alphabetic. I prefer the term Early Alphabetic, following my teacher, P. Kyle McCarter, Jr. In any case, suffice it to say that I am in complete agreement with Ahituv.

Some scholars have stated in blogs that this inscription is perhaps written in the Phoenician script, not the Early Alphabetic Script. Technically speaking, however, the term “Phoenician” would be problematic for the script of this Incised Jerusalem Pithos. Note the following: (1) The Early Alphabetic Script could be written sinistrograde (right-to-left), dextrograde (left-to-right), boustrophedon (i.e., consecutive lines written from left-to-right then right-to-left, etc.), and in columns (i.e., vertically); (2) The stance of the letters in Early Alphabetic writing was not fixed. That is, the letters could “face” different ways and the letters could be written with dramatically different degrees of rotation, even within the same inscription; (3) Within the Early Alphabetic script, the number of consonsantal graphemes (“letters”) could be, and often was, higher than twenty-two graphemes.

However, during the terminal horizons of the second millennium several developments occurred in linear alphabetic Northwest Semitic. Namely, (4) the direction of writing became fixed: it was consistently sinistrograde (right-to-left); (5) The stance of the letters became more stabilized and standardized, with trained scribes normally “facing” the letters in the same direction, and without dramatic variations in the degrees of rotation; (6) the number of consonantal graphemes was reduced to twenty-two. For many decades, the established convention within the field of palaeography has been to refer to this script (reflecting these three changes), at this time period, as Phoenician. Joseph Naveh’s statement continues to reflect the consensus of the field, namely, the transition from Early Alphabetic to Phoenician “took place in the mid-eleventh century B.C. (Naveh, Early History of the Alphabet, Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1987, 42; Rollston, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel: Epigraphic Evidence from the Iron Age, Atlanta: SBL, 2010, 19).

Significantly, (1) the script of this new “Iron Age Incised Jerusalem Pithos” reflects the (varied) stance of letters in the Early Alphabetic script (e.g., the stance of nun is precisely the reverse of the normal stance in the Phoenician alphabet and its congeners in the National Scripts from later periods). (2) Moreover, this inscription is decipherable and it is written dextrograde, that is, from left-to-right. As noted, Phoenician was consistently written sinistrograde. Thus, there is is sufficient evidence to state that the script of this inscription should be classified as Early Alphabetic (i.e., “Proto-Canaanite”), not Phoenician. In short, Ahituv’s classification is certainly correct.

In terms of the palaeographic date for this inscription, I would be most comfortable with the 11th century BCE, rather than the 10th century BCE. The primary reasons for this dating are (1) the direction of writing (dextrograde); and (2) the fact that the five strokes of mem are of approximate equal length (the fifth stroke is elongated already in Ahirman, but note Azarba‘al, which is slightly earlier than Ahiram). I wish there were more letters in this inscription, but there are not. In any case, based on the palaeographic evidence at hand, a date in the 11th century seems to me to be reasonable. For detailed discussion of the script of this period, see McCarter, The Antiquity of the Greek Alphabet and the Early Phoenician Scripts, Missoula, Scholars Press, HSM 9, 29-63; Rollston, “The Dating of the Early Royal Byblian Phoenician Inscriptions,” Maarav 15 (2008): 57-93 and the bibliography cited in these two sources. In other words, I date this inscription prior to the rise of David and Solomon. Thus, again, I find myself in happy agreement with Professor Ahituv.

B. Readings

Inscriptions in Early Alphabetic are often (as noted) written in dextrograde and I would contend that this new Incised Jerusalem Pithos is written in this fashion, that is, from left-to-right. Here are my readings: mem, qop, lamed, het, nun, [re]sh, sh[in]. My readings, therefore, differ to some degree, with those of the authors of the editio princeps. Also, I would emphasize additional matters of ductus, namely, the horizontals of the het were made after the verticals (evidenced by the pattern which I term “damming”).

For the morphology and stance of the letters, I would draw the reader’s attention especially to W.F. Albright’s chart of Early Alphabetic in his volume entitled The Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions and Their Decipherment, HTS 22, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1966. This chart is conveniently reproduced in Joseph Naveh’s Early History of the Alphabet, 25. In addition, very useful is the chart in an article by Frank Moore Cross entitled “Newly Found Inscriptions in Old Canaanite and Early Phoenician Scripts, BASOR 238 (1980): 1-20, conveniently reproduced in the collection by Cross entitled “Leaves from an Epigrapher’s Notebook: Collected Papers in Hebrew and West Semitic Palaeography and Epigraphy, HSS 51, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2003, 213-230. See also the drawing of the (alphabetic) Tell Fekhariyeh inscription in Ali Abou-Assaf, Pierre Bordreuil, and Alan R. Millard, La Statue de Tell Fekherye et son inscription bilingue assyro-arameenne, Paris, Editions Recherche sur les civilizations, 1982.

Perhaps most important is the fact that the letter which the authors of the editio princeps read as a peh, I read as a lamed. I would draw attention in particular to the forms of lamed in Albright’s chart. In addition, I would draw the reader’s attention to the form of lamed in Tell Fakhariyeh. The form in this new Incised Jerusalem Pithos is very similar to that of Tell Fekhariyeh, but facing in the opposite direction. This is quite understandable, as Fakhariyeh is written sinistrograde and the Jerusalem Incised Pithos is written dextrograde. That is, in both cases the “hook” of the letter is facing in the direction of writing. Notice, of course, that the nun is written in the same fashion (i.e., “facing” in the opposite direction from that which we would expect from the later, standardized Phoenician script). I can understand the reasons for the desire on the part of the authors of the editio princeps to wish to read a peh (or even a gimel), but reading a lamed here is much preferable, from my perspective, especially since this reading yields a good lexeme, that is, a comprehensible reading…and in addition, it is palaeographically permissible and reasonable (some have attempted to read this letter as a sade and do not find that reading cogent). I am happy to note that shortly after I mentioned that I differed with the authors of the editio princeps with regard to some of the readings, my dear friend Anat Mendel mentioned (independently) that she felt this letter could be read as a lamed. Because I believe Mendel has a very good “eye for form” (to use the term Frank Cross coined for palaeographers), I take this as a good sign that the readings herein proposed is reasonable.

C. Translation

The root present in this inscription is qop,lamed,het, that is the word “pot,” or “cauldron” (cf. 1 Sam 2:14; Micah 3:3, with this noun attested in the Bible with the feminine marker tav of Hebrew). I must admit that “pot” is not the most sensational of readings, but I do believe it to be the correct reading. Significantly, Thomas Lambdin discussed this word in some detail in “Egyptian Loan Words in the Old Testament,” JAOS 73 (1953): 149, noting that it was attested in Egyptian “since the Old Kingdom.” Someone might counter that it would not make sense to have the word “pot” written on a pot, as it would be a tautology, of sorts. However, I would note (for example) that the word “nbl” (“pot,” “vessel”) is very well attested in the Reisner Samaria Ostraca (e.g., prior to the reference to the commodity, such as “wine” or “olive oil”). As for the mem which precedes the qop, lamed, het on the Incised Jerusalem Pithos, I would propose that this could be part of the formation of this noun (as many nouns are formed with a prefixed mem, of course) or I suppose that it could be the preposition min with an assimilated nun. I have a slight preference for the former, I suppose. The nun that follows the two-bar het could conceivably be a plural marker (as in certain dialects of Northwest Semitic), but because of the context, I prefer to consider this noun to be singular, “pot,” rather than “pots,” and thus I consider the nun to be the first letter of the next word, perhaps followed by a resh (thus yielding, “Ner”). Of course, Ner is an attested personal name (cf. even 1 Sam 14:50, Abner son of Ner, the commander of Saul’s army, although I would certainly not propose an identification of these biblical and epigraphic figures on the basis of the evidence at hand, especially since the reading “Ner” is not certain), and so in this case (if this reading and rendering are accepted), this portion of this inscription would read “Pot belonging to Ner” (nb: someone might propose that there was a dalet in the lacuna after the proposed resh, thus, the inscription would refer to a “pot of nard.” I do not find that impossible, although someone might counter that a pithos would be a rather large amount of this precious commodity). There is a preserved portion of a letter at the far right side of this potsherd. Someone could propose that it should be read as a nun. I do not think so, however. Rather, I would propose that it is probably a shin, turned on its side, as it were, something which is common enough in Early Alphabetic.


This inscription is written in the Early Alphabetic script. The inscription is written dextrograde. I am most comfortable with a date in the 11th century BCE. The extant lexeme on this inscribed pithos is arguably the word “pot.” The word “pot” may have been followed by a personal name, such as “Ner” or (perhaps) a commodity such as “nard.” I prefer the assumption that it is a personal name. In terms of the language of this inscription, the language is certainly Northwest Semitic, and I would suggest that it is methodologically safest to posit that the language is Canaanite (as the script is Early Alphabetic, that is, Proto-Canaanite). However, I think that someone could propose that the language is Phoenician. In fact, I also believe that it is linguistically possible (but perhaps slightly more difficult) to argue that the language is Old Hebrew. Ultimately, however, as is often the case, there is no diagnostic element present which allows us to draw a firm conclusion. For this reason, the matter of the precise dialect of Northwest Semitic must be left open for this inscription, but my belief is that “Canaanite” is the best way to refer to the language of this incised pithos.

Finally, I should like to conclude by stating that I believe this is a nice inscription, important in various ways. Of course, I personally would be very disinclined to “build a kingdom upon this potsherd.” But I would wish to state that this is an inscription that fits nicely into, and augments, the totality of our epigraphic evidence for the early Iron Age, and I congratulate Eilat Mazar on this find and I congratulate Shmuel Ahituv and David Ben-Shlomo and Eilat Mazar on its publication in the pages of Israel Exploration Journal.


ADDENDUM I: Gershon Galil has indicated to me that he reads this inscription as sinistrograde, yielding, of course, the “portion,” “part” root. This is a plausible reading, but because reading this inscription as dextrograde accounts so nicely for the direction of both the lamed and the nun (i.e., the way which these letters are facing), and because the word “pot” followed by a personal name or a commodity works so nicely, I continue to prefer to read this inscription in this fashion. I thank Gerson Galil for bringing his reading to my attention. Sincerely, Chris Rollston


Addendum II, Sunday, July 14.

Quick notes, replying to some queries and comments.

(1) The reason for my preference for the 11th century is the fact that the script is Early Alphabetic, not Phoenician. The Phoenician script, as we know it, was developed in the 11th century, and from that point on, that script (i.e., Phoenician script) spread rapidly and it became the MutterSchrift of the subsequent (daughter) national scripts: Old Hebrew and Aramaic. It is not impossible that there were two parallel script traditions and that the Early Alphabetic script and the Phoenician script lived side-by-side for some time. At this point, however, the evidence need not be understood in this way. I suspect that there were pockets where conversion from Early Alphabetic to the Phoenician script took longer. (2) The fact that the find may have been, or was, a 10th century context does not preclude the possibility that the pot itself was from the 11th century. Usage periods can be longer than we might presuppose, even for pots. (3) Furthermore, I think that even if a pottery form is well attested in a particular horizon, there can be, and often are precursors to it. Within the field of palaeography we call these harbinger forms. The same thing can happen with pots..that is, a form that is predominant in one period can have very similar, or even identical ancestors in a preceding horizon. (4) As for the notion of heirloom pots…I did not indicate that this is the way that I personally felt. Rather I stated that it was possible. From my perspective, possible and probable are two very different things. (5) Finally, with regard to the 11th century vs the 10th century….we’re talking about a few decades. That’s it. I don’t think that pottery typology (and the bases for it) or palaeographic typology (or the bases for it) are so precise (in terms of absolute dates) that there is much to argue about here. We’re talking about a few decades. That’s it. (6) Final comment….someone queried about whether or not I knew the Serabit script well (an amusing comment to say the least). Suffice it to say, that, yes, I have known it well for a very long time now.

With all best wishes,