Secret Message on a Bottle in Jerusalem's City of David

3,000-Year-Old Shard Provides Insight Into Biblical Times

Face the Vase: A rare inscription was found on the broken neck of a 3,000-year-old clay storage jar unearthed in excavations in the “City of David,”
Gershon Galil
Face the Vase: A rare inscription was found on the broken neck of a 3,000-year-old clay storage jar unearthed in excavations in the “City of David,”

By Philologos

Published February 02, 2014, issue of February 07, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

A skilled paleographer or specialist in ancient writing can sometimes guess what a mere fragment of that writing is about. A month ago, Haifa University biblical historian Gershon Galil published such a guess in an Israeli journal. If he’s right, not only has he correctly deciphered a puzzling inscription written in the ancient Phoenician/Hebrew alphabet, but he has also made a significant contribution to a long-standing scholarly debate.

The rare inscription was found half a year ago, on the broken neck of a 3,000-year-old clay storage jar unearthed in excavations in the “City of David,” the spur that, facing the southern wall of the Old City of Jerusalem, is now widely believed to have been the site of King David’s palace and administrative headquarters. Dated by archaeologists to the second half of the 10th century BCE, the conjectured time of the reign of David’s son Solomon, this clay shard is sketched in the drawing that accompanies this column. The area ABCD is part of the storage jar’s lip; the break occurred beneath it, along the line EF; a broken-off piece, EGH, was found lying nearby and was reattached; the adjacent piece, GHF, was not found.

The inscription itself is incomplete, part of a longer phrase or sentence that ran around the jar’s neck. Scanned from right to left, its five left-hand letters, intact once EGH is restored, are nun, ḥet, lamed, kuf and mem. The three right-hand letters are missing everything beneath line FG. The drawing shows Galil’s reconstruction of them, which assumes them to be — from right to left again — mem, yod, yod. Based on this assumption, he has proposed a reading of all eight letters.

We’ll get to that in a minute. First, though, you have, or should have, a question. If you look at the drawing, you’ll see that Galil’s two reconstructed yods were found with only their upper tips; moreover, the tip of the second yod *(the third letter from the right of the inscription) is angled more like that of the *nun to its left, and like that of the mem at the inscription’s far left, than like that of the first yod. And in addition, the upper tip of the first yod is angled like that of the mem to its right. What justification, then, did Galil have for reconstructing the second and third letters as yod and yod rather than, say, as nun and mem, or mem and mem, or as still other characters of the Phoenician/Hebrew alphabet?

The answer to this is that Galil thought of something overlooked by other scholars who had struggled with the inscription. Ordinarily, the inscription’s fifth to seventh letters, ḥet, lamed and kuf, might spell in ancient Hebrew, which was written without the vowels, either the adjective ḥalak, “smooth”; the noun ḥelek, “part,” or the verbs ḥalak or ḥilek, “he partook” or “he divided” — none of which suggests anything that might have been written on the neck of a storage jar. But Galil remembered that in Hebrew’s sister language of ancient Phoenician, ḥalak, as an adjective applied to wine, meant not “smooth” but, on the contrary, “rough” or “low-grade,” and this led him to the hypothesis that Hebrew could have had such a word, too, and that the jar was used to store low-grade wine — in which case, the word before ḥalak, composed of the inscription’s second to fourth letters, would logically have been yayin, “wine.” The final nun of yayin already existed; all that remained was to posit that the tips of the two letters preceding it belonged to two yods. Six of the inscription’s eight letters would now be accounted for, while the remaining two, the far-right and left-hand mems, could stand for either the preposition mi, “from,” or be part of some other word.

I’ll leave aside Galil’s analysis of what this other word or words might have been. The important thing is that if his guess is correct, the conclusions he draws from it might well be correct, too. These are that 1) the contents of the storage jar could not have been meant for David or Solomon’s officials, who would have drunk better-grade wine, so it must have been intended for ordinary workers in the palace area; 2) the inscription must have been the work of a clerk entrusted with labeling such jars; 3) a literate bureaucracy capable of carrying out tasks like this must therefore have existed in David and Solomon’s time.

This last point is crucial, because for decades two opposing schools of biblical historians have clashed over the question of whether David and Solomon’s Jerusalem-based kingdom was really the large, powerful and centrally administered mini-empire portrayed by the Bible — and one of the contentions of the skeptics is that no literate bureaucracy capable of running such a kingdom existed in the Jerusalem of David and Solomon’s age. Galil’s hypothesis, if true, would establish that David and Solomon indeed had at their disposal clerks who could read, write and keep records. This could help swing the debate in favor of those who believe that the Bible is to be trusted — and all because of the tips of two yods.

Contents for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.