THE BLOG

The Ophel Inscription Debate

03/10/2014 03:27 pm ET | Updated May 09, 2014
  • Roger Isaacs Author, 'Talking With God: The Radioactive Ark of the Testimony'; www.talkingwithgod.net

Last year's discovery in Jerusalem of an inscription on a broken piece of a ceramic jar has been greeted with much excitement and the usual arguments within the archaeological community as to its significance. In an effort to clarify the various positions presently taken, I've asked Adam Hemmings, who is doing postgraduate work in archaeology at the University of London, to give his explanation of the background of this enigmatic find.

The practice of archaeology, and biblical archaeology especially, is a controversial one. The layers of history that lie beneath our feet are laden with interpretation, claims and counterclaims. When archaeologists unearth this history, it is no wonder that such a mix of emotions greet their discoveries: wonder, awe, curiosity and, judging by the number of times I've been asked about the Curse of the Pharaohs, fear. Mysteries fascinate humans sometimes more than the hard work it takes to unravel them -- but for this work we need an interdisciplinary toolkit that covers many subjects, from ancient literature and philosophy to radiocarbon dating and palynology.

I am often caught between two groups: sensationalists and minimalists. We saw both of these groups at work recently when Gershon Galil of the University of Haifa announced that an inscription uncovered on a fragment of a ceramic jar in 2013 was in Hebrew and most probably dated to the second half of the 10th century BCE. As soon as the news of this translation was made public, the two opposing armies staked their positions: sensationalists claimed the find was incontrovertible evidence for the biblical veracity of King Solomon; minimalists declared that great caution was needed before making any romanticized assertions. But the facts of this case are more subtle and sophisticated than the headlines would have you believe.

The artifact concerned, dubbed the Ophel Inscription, was discovered near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem by Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar. Scratched upon the clay are the remnants of an ancient language, the identity of which has been hotly debated. Why such concern over a simple labeled jar? Mazar has dated the jar based on its composition and location to the 10th century BCE, a dating that would place the inscription within the biblical time period of David and Solomon.

The letters have been variously described as Proto-Canaanite script (and thus predating Israelite rule) by Shmuel Ahituv of Ben-Gurion University and Early Alphabetic (proto-Sinaitic) by Christopher Rollston of Johns Hopkins. Each has rendered different translations. The new interpretation by Galil posits that the text is Hebrew and labels the jar as containing low-quality wine from a king's twentieth or thirtieth regnal year, suggesting it may have been for consumption by conscript labor. So many possibilities, but what facts can we actually glean from the discovery?

Clearly, if we take Galil's translation, wine was being brought to the Jerusalem area through official channels and marked as belonging to the reign of a particularly long-ruling king. The fact that the wine is labeled means that a certain amount of bureaucracy must have existed, and its low quality might suggest it was intended to be handed out to lower-class citizens, as in other ancient cultures. Archaeologically, this is about as much as we can learn, and it does not seem to explicitly link the artifact to Solomon or any biblical truth. Then again, if with further study the inscription is shown more positively to be Hebrew, minimalists would have a hard time maintaining that no biblical-era state existed. In the end, we are left with a less clear-cut situation and must be prepared to accept that there may never be one answer.

At this point, we must deploy our interdisciplinary toolkit and move beyond archaeology and the study of language. The Bible was the driving force behind many archaeological endeavors for centuries, with excavators and patrons keen to prove the accuracy of the biblical account. Unfortunately, this occasionally led to less-than-scientific conclusions, and archaeologists determined that it was best to solely dig without being influenced in interpretation by legendary texts. Yet, such a fundamentalist position relegates vital information beyond the archaeologist's grasp, a situation that no discipline should perpetuate.

Taken as a whole, the Bible is a collection of accounts that act as a repository for cultural memory. Is not this memory valid for our investigation of history? Can we not find buried within such accounts, whether from the Bible, the Odyssey or the Ramayana, true voices of those civilizations that bring light to those places which seem impenetrable?

The Ophel Inscription's true significance is yet to be seen, but the investigation must continue both in the ground and in the library. Only through a measured, all-encompassing study of the past can we hope to learn its secrets and begin to better understand ourselves.

It is this type of penetrating investigation that makes Roger Isaacs' Talking With God so important for the field. Similarly using an interdisciplinary method, words of obscure origin and meaning are thoroughly analyzed to provide important new interpretations. Such theoretical procedures are essential if we are ever to have a more fully comprehensive view of the past.

Adam Hemmings, of the University of Chicago and School of Oriental and African Studies, London, is doing post graduate studies in Egyptian and Near Eastern studies, as well as archaeological law. He is currently engaged in research regarding the repatriation of Egyptian antiquities removed during the colonial period.