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!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • 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.