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The Decipherment of the New ‘Incised Jerusalem Pithos’

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,



29 Comments to “The Decipherment of the New ‘Incised Jerusalem Pithos’”

  1. Your argument is cogent and convincing. And I thank you for it.

  2. As usual well reasoned and well presented. Thank you for sharing your perspective. Even though I am not an epigrapher, I had the same reaction to the lamed/peh issue as well. Would be nice if we could further point to a Jebusite identification – but Canaanite works too. My only caution in all of this is that we are missing the additional letters on either end, making any reading highly speculative…

    • Thanks so much for the kind words, David. Please see the response which I have just posted to this query from you and from Antonio Lombatti.

      With all best wishes and kind regards,


  3. Very interesting and helpful. Thanks for the post.

  4. I was thinking it might be a place orןgin- עמק – then the rest has to make sense as well. This is fun- fitting those letters into a broader picture. Thank you for the background elucidations. We must better clarify the context. Later lamelekh jars lasted 50-70 years. If, if, earlier quality is also good this pitos may indeed have 11th century writing in a 10th century context. However the strength of a 10th century context may mean rethinking letter development. Now, in other areas of Prof. Eilat Mazar’s dig there 200 year debates regarding the 10 century dating (inc, the position of handle on a small black jug). Your suggestion here of an even earlier dating is thus most fascinating.

    • Hello, Barnea,

      Great to hear from you. Nice suggestion with regard to ‘mq. As you indicate, in such a case, one would need to be able to make some sense out of the rest of it as well. Let me know if something comes to mind. Your suggestion about the continued use of a pot from the 11th century into the 10th is certainly worth thinking about. I do believe that there are heirloom items that can be produced in one period and retained for some time and thus found in a much later context (in the article on the Early Byblian inscriptions, I refer to a few examples). On the other hand, I suppose I generally do not think of something such as a pithos surviving all that long…but, of course, a fired one certainly could. Thanks again for the note.

      With all best wishes,


  5. Antonio Lombatti

    I love the way your write your articles. They always show your deep knowledge of the topic you’re dealing with, and, above all, they are exact and well defined. I think it’s a gift: it seems you turn obscure and difficult matters easily understandable reports.

    I’d add my comment to the one written by David Willner. What if this inscription were Jebusite? Can you confirm or dismiss the theory that they were an Amorite tribe? So, can a Jebusite/Amorite inscription still be labelled as “proto-Canaanite”? Thanks for your clarifications.

    • Dear Antonio,

      Thanks so much for the kind words. I am most grateful for your kindness. (1) As for the term “Jebusite,” I suppose that I do not use that term very much, but perhaps I should not be so reluctant to do so. (2) In any case, as for the pre-Israelite residents of Jerusalem, yes, I would consider it acceptable to use the term “Canaanite” of them. Moreover, as you know, in the Akkadian Amarna Letters from the Levant, including those from Jerusalem, there are features that can be labeled “Canaanite” (etc.). (3) As for the script under discussion, I am also comfortable with those who use the term “Proto-Canaanite” script. (4) Nevertheless, I suppose that part of the reason for my preference for the term “Early Alphabetic” script (rather than Proto-Canaanite script) is that I feel the term “Proto” for an extant script sort of confuses the matter (as you would surmise, I am more comfortable, therefore, with the term “Early Canaanite”….but I think that this term also confuses the matter, as the very term presupposes that there would be something that is termed “Late Canaanite,” etc.). Thus, at the end of the day, I have come to prefer the term Early Alphabetic, following in the footsteps of my beloved and esteemed teacher, Kyle McCarter.

  6. Thank you for your reasoned thoughts, Chris. It’s always a pleasure reading your analyses. It will be interesting to see how this inscription fits with the excavation strata if it can be placed in the 11th century BC, as you suggest. We will, I suspect, have to wait a few more seasons for the picture to become clearer on that issue.

    A few questions for you, if you don’t mind:

    1. Clarification: If there is a gap after ‘Ner’, you would have to say that the construct expression ‘pot of Ner’ is given without word division, while word division is preserved to the next word?

    2. Will you get an opportunity to look at the fragment in person in the near future? I really like the analysis you’ve provided here, but would be more settled if you were able to inspect the fragment yourself.

    3. I agree that we can’t build a kingdom on this potsherd (nice turn of phrase!), but could you elaborate slightly on how this fragment augments our epigraphic evidence of the Iron Age? Is that purely a statement about letter forms, or would you say something also about literacy or socioeconomics?

    Thanks again!

    • Hello, George,

      Thanks for the note and your kind words. (1) As for word division….I tend to concur with Naveh (et al) that the scribes of ancient Northwest Semitic (regardless of the script or language) were not all that consistent with regard to word division (unless they eliminated it all together). However, having said that, I think that you question is very good and entirely fair. My suspicion (although we shall never know unless E. Mazar finds the rest of this pithos somewhere) is that there are a few possibilities. You mention the fact that the construct relationship could account for the absence of a word divider. This (as you know and as you indicate) is a reasonable means of accounting for it. I suppose that one could also suggest that the personal name ‘N[er]’ is the conclusion of the inscription…and thus the shin could be understood as the beginning of the inscription, etc. (2) I would really love to collate this inscription microscopically. I will be spending about five months at the Albright Institute, beginning in September and so perhaps my time in Jerusalem will provide the occasion to collate this inscription (i.e., if E. Mazar and the IAA would be amenable to it). (3) As for literacy, of course, I am always disinclined to make broad statements about the extent of literacy on the basis of rather meager (NWS) epigraphic materials, but I think that it is indeed important that we have here very good evidence for the (fairly) nice hand of someone incising a pot (before firing). Thus, it is clear, I believe, that there were those capable of writing and reading Early Alphabetic in Jerusalem during the terminal portions of the 11th century (or the very early 10th century). More than this, I would be disinclined to say, but the fact that we have this empirical evidence is certainly of some consequence.

      With all best wishes and kind regards, Chris

  7. […] Christopher Rollston has proposed that what remains of the inscription may mean “pot” followed by the first letter either of someone’s name or an indication of contents. Gershon Galil has proposed reading it as “give them their share.” Click through to read about the proposals and understand why they are different. […]

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

  9. […] 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. […]

  10. Jeremiah Unterman

    Chris (you may remember that we met at the Institute for Advanced Studies conference in Jerusalem), the only question I have concerns the logic of the reading of “pot.” If your suggestion is correct “pot belonging to Nr…,” that would be the only case we have of such a reading on a vessel, as opposed to “pot of [contents].” Does that not challenge your interpretation?

    • Thanks so much for the note, Jeremiah. It is very nice to hear from you and I appreciate the question very much as well. The Kefar Vradim Bowl discovered by Y. Alexandre reads: “the cup of Pesah, son of Sm’. I included a drawing and brief discussion of this piece in my ‘Writing and Literacy’ volume (pp 27-29), where I also indicate that I am comfortable with a very early 10th century date for it. I am grateful for Anat Mendel’s reminding me of this nice parallel to my proposed reading for the Jerusalem Pithos Inscription. With all best wishes and kind regards, Chris.

  11. […] Athas isn’t right and the script really is Proto-Canaanite, so my first point stands. Share:PrintEmailLike this:Like […]

  12. Rev. Bryant J. Williams III

    Dear Chris,

    Regarding Barnea’s comment and your response to the issue of heirlooms, usage of particular elements (pithos), etc. My wife’s great grandfather purchased a 1915, Ludwig of New York, concert upright grand piano and gave it to his wife (wife’s great grandmother). My wife received this same piano ca. 1970 AD. This same piano is still in very good condition and still plays extremely well and sits on the back wall of the living room away from the front window. Should this piano be later discovered by an archaeologist, it would be thought that it belonged to the 21th Century AD (which in this case it is partially correct, but also incorrect since it actually began in the 20th Century AD).

    Too often certain items are kept for longer periods of time than is usually thought, e.g. money, certain family heirlooms, etc. This is why I think there is usually too much circular reasoning going on when it says that this item is from this date, because we found it in this strata and the strata is this date because we found this item in it.

    Now, due to the nature of the evidence found in Judges – I Kings, the idea that something is late Iron Age, Bronze Age is misleading. Just say, ca 1200 – 1000 BC (Judges – I Samuel – Samson, Jephthah, Eli, Samuel, Saul, early David) to 1000 – 920 BC (II Samuel – I Kings – David, Solomon). This is because the layman is not particular familiar with the issues of dating regarding Iron Age, Bronze Age, 11th Century BC (1100-1000) etc.

  13. Douglas Petrovich

    Dear Christopher,

    Greetings from Toronto! There is a lot I could say, but I will try to keep it shorter than your blog post. We’ll see how I do. My background is in Middle and Late Egyptian, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, though I have been doing a lot of study with the Serabit inscriptions of late. Currently I am completing a PhD under Tim Harrison, and I was part of the team that discovered the tablets in the cella of the temple (probably to Nabu) at Tell Tayinat (Kunulua), which tablets were translated for us by your former compatriot, Jacob Lauinger. He did brilliant work on them.

    Thanks for your advanced work here on the new inscription. I interacted on the ANE-2 List regarding a number of things you said here, some in agreement and others not. I also interacted with what was said by Ahituv, Athas, and Demsky. I will mention a few things here, especially regarding what you have said. Thanks for opening up the forum to us.

    Contra Athas, you et al. are exactly right that the inscription reads dextrograde. There are many clues that make this clear, the most obvious being the direction of the shepherd’s crook (lamed), with the short end of the staff on the right (from S39 on the ME sign list). Following ME (Middle Egyptian), as the Israelites did, with the short end of the staff on the right, this signifies a dextrograde reading. Incidentally, the original meaning of the word was LMD (Judg. 3:31), Hebrew for the instrument (crook/shepherd’s staff) that was used to goad animals along.

    I also agree 100% that our strongest parallel for this script is the NK inscriptions at Serabit. Well done! My recent research has shown that there are vital ties between the NK writings at Serabit and the MK inscriptions also found there. This will be accentuated in a book I am writing, which will have an appendix (Western Semitic Inscriptions in Egypt of the MK and NK) written by Brian Colless.

    I agree 100% that this is not Phoenician, though clearly there are undeniable parallels. The fact that the Ophel inscription reads dextrograde not only slams the door on that notion, but it points us to Middle Egyptian (ME) as the greatest source of derivation, given that ME can be read dextrograde, sinistrograde, or top-to-bottom.

    In fact, the NK Semitic inscriptions at Serabit even go beyond Egyptian’s versatility: at times they read top-to-bottom (from left) in the first column, then bottom-to-top in the 2nd, top-to-bottom in the 3rd, etc. This, if you will excuse the brevity of examples, clearly betrays a further connection between the writer of the Ophel inscription and the people who wrote at Serabit.

    I also believe that the Ophel inscription represents a clear distinction from Phoenician and, as perhaps you are implying, acts to demonstrate a different written tradition than Phoenician, closing the door on the old concept that proto-alphabetic transitioned to Phoenician. Personally, I believe that there were independent lines of written tradition that interacted through the intensive trading period that was conducted between Avaris and the Levant during the time from the late MK and into the NK, and further diverged over time, though detailing this is beyond what I can write here.

    As for redating the inscription to the 11th c., I would like to suspend judgment. I first would like to hear why exactly it cannot be dated to the 10th c. As one who has invested great amounts of time not only in epigraphy, but also archaeology, I know the dangers of drawing epigraphical conclusions while ignoring archaeological context. As with you, I consider it dubious that this pithos may have been an heirloom. This would be unprecedented, at least from my experience.

    Ultimately, I am waiting for the IEJ article to come out, which hopefully will illuminate the archaeological context. Until then, someone is going to have to prove to me that we can date a pithos 100 years earlier than its in situ context, and I have yet to see any conclusive argumentation.

    On a side note, I find Colless’s morphology chart (“The Proto-Alphabetic Inscriptions of Sinai”, in Abr-Nahrain 28: 1990) to be far more reliable than Albright’s. I’m not too sure how much work you’ve done on the Serabit inscriptions, but this is what my study has proven. In light of that, I consider shin to be impossible as the 7th letter. I think it’s clearly the alternative form of nun. As to why the writer would write both forms of nun in the same inscription, I have no idea, but this is the best reading by far. Demsky and Colless both agree with me on this point.

    This reminds me, I agree with you 100% that we have 7 ‘letters’ here. Demsky reads 6, and he says that Ahituv reads 5. I have no idea how we can read anything other than 7 letters. My other problems with Demsky’s views are found on the ANE-2; you should be a member of the list! 🙂

    With apologies, I also cannot buy the qof. Neither can Colless nor Demsky; they both offer resh. The jury is out on the resh idea for me, but so far I am not buying it, either. But I am strongly opposed to the qof. You may want to rethink this one, which–of course–would kill your ‘pot’ translation. An unfortunate casualty! Such is war. 🙂 Having said that, I would have ZERO problem with reading the word ‘pot’ on the pot. Demsky wants the lamed to introduce the possessor of the pithos/commodity within it, which is possible, but there are far too many unsolved mysteries to be dogmatic about it.

    Before I bring this to an end, I want to try persuading you of one–and only one–thing, which can be found in this quote:

    “The script of this inscription has been accurately described by my friend Shmuel Ahituv as ‘Proto-Canaanite’.” I have numerous problems with this designation, which is why I also prefer (for now) your preferred Early Alphabetic, which I often write as proto-alphabetic. Please allow me to offer several reasons for why I believe it would behoove you to forsake the “(i.e., ‘Proto-Canaanite’)” designation . . . for once . . . and for always.

    1) Most–if not all–of the ‘letters’ in this inscription find their roots in ME, not Canaanite. I wrote above about the lamed, which is derived from ME S39. The initial ‘M’ is a vertical wave of water that is a variant of the horizontal wave of water, which is ME ‘mu’, the lexicographical ‘standard alphabetic glyph’ for the ‘m’ sound. Incidentally, Hebrew ‘m’ derives from Egyptian ‘mu’ (cf. Heb. mayim=water). Do you think this is pure coincidence, or are there Egyptians in 11th/10th-century Jerusalem writing ‘proto-consonantal’ (as per NK inscriptions at Serabit) instead of Late Egyptian? Either way, Canaanite knows nothing about either option. Next, we have het. This letter/sign/radical derives from the Egyptian ‘enclosure, court, funerary chapel’ (O6 in the sign list). What’s the Hebrew word for ‘court’? Yep, ‘Hatser’, with initial het. The Hebrew letter derives from the hieroglyph, which also depicts a rectangular building with the long-end vertical. Does Canaanite know anything of any of this? If that’s not enough for you, the only other clearly read ‘letter’ here is nun. This jagged letter represents a snake, and it derives from the Egyptian cobra-glyph (I10 in S.L.). The ‘standard alphabetic glyph’ for the Egyptian letter ‘dj’ is I10, but the Egyptian word ‘snake’ is pronounced ‘djedefet’, thus with no initial ‘n’. Amazingly enough, the Hebrew word for snake is ‘nahash’, with an initial ‘n’ sound. The Hebrew sign/letter/radical derives from the ME hieroglyph. Canaanite? Nowhere to be found.

    2) Does anything in Canaanite derive from ME? To my knowledge, it does not. Moreover, do you see any of the letters/radical/signs in the Ophel inscription that clearly and definitively derive from Canaanite? If so, which ones, and what are your examples to prove this derivation conclusively?

    So, is that enough evidence for us all to dump forever the ‘proto-Canaanite’ notion, or do I need to post my entire research here that has gone into the book I am writing? If the former is not enough to convince you, the latter will strip the paint off of your car. My friend, this inscription is 100% Hebrew, and 0% Canaanite. Yet Egyptian/Egypt is the root of it all.

    In conclusion, let me add that I see only 5 clearly-read letters here: M-?-L-H-N-space-N. The others are still mysterious to me. Hopefully I will gain confidence on the 2nd one, but the 6th is/will be a challenge. Until I feel I have a handle on these two letters, I will be leery about moving to the translation phase.

    If you want to write me anything personally, please find my e-mail address on my academia.edu site.

    Yours for the proper reading of the Ophel inscription,

    Doug(las) Petrovich, PhD Candidate, ThM, MDiv, MA
    University of Toronto, NMC Department

  14. Whether your article is ultimately right or wrong, — I’m not familiar enough with the topic to make an informed decision — I like the humility with which it is presented. Thought you’d like to be aware of one typo:
    “I must admit that pot is not the most sensational *or* readings”

    • Thanks so much for the kind words. I am very grateful. Moreover, thanks also for catching that typo. I have made the correction. Thanks again.

      With all best wishes,


  15. This writing looks Geez from Ethiopia. First 3 characters
    in present day form of Geez Script read as : N Wa (or Ye) Bo

  16. […] that the inscription means “pot” or “cauldron”. Not very romantic: http://www.rollstonepigraphy.com/?p=561 Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailPrintDiggLinkedInStumbleUponGoogle +1RedditLike this:Like […]

  17. […] C. (2013) The Decipherment of the New ‘Incised Jerusalem Pithos’. http://www.rollstonepigraphy.com/?p=561. Accessed 17 July, […]

  18. […] koninkrijk ook in die stad kon schrijven. Daarna begon de discussie over wat er nu eigenlijk stond: 1, 2, 3, 4. De inzet van die discussie is de taal van de inscriptie: laat Kanaänitisch of vroeg […]

  19. Very interesting prof. Rollston.
    I see that you read the central letter as “het” and so does prof. Galil. Are there other examples of Het shaped an executed like that? Thanks a lot

    • Thank you for the note. Yes, the reading of het is certain. For discussion and examples, see _Leaves from and Epigrapher’s Notebook_ by Frank Moore Cross. With all best wishes and kind regards, Christopher Rollston

  20. […] The Decipherment of the New ‘Incised Jerusalem Pithos’ – Christopher Rollston: Rollston Epigraphy – Ancient Inscriptions from the Levantine World 11/07/2013 […]

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