Early Hebrew writing

Over the past couple of weeks there have been a number of news stories about the discovery of a new ostracon (pottery shard) from the site of Khirbet Qeiyafa southwest of Jerusalem, bearing five lines of text that have been identified as ‘Hebrew’. The ostracon was dated (through association with burnt olive pits that could be radiocarbon dated) to around 1050-970 BCE, right around where the traditional timeline puts the Biblical King David. The site is a large fortified urban one, and is located in the Valley of Elah, where it is said that David slew Goliath. If the date holds, and if the claim that this is ‘Hebrew’ writing is confirmed, then this would represent the earliest Hebrew writing known to date.

As a teacher I’ve often found it useful to present news reports to students, and ask them how they would evaluate evidence like this in light of what they already know, or to ask what further questions they would want answered before being satisfied. Because most of us (including most scholars) never go any further than the news reports, and because these reports often precede by months or even years the publication of peer-reviewed material, it’s vital to be able to evaluate this material in terms of its implications for archaeology and epigraphy. So what do we know, and how do we evaluate it?

To start with, let’s collect some articles on the subject, which will constitute our body of evidence:
BBC News, 10/30/2008
Associated Press, 10/30/2008
Mail Online, 10/31/2008
Reuters, 10/30/2008
Telegraph, 10/31/2008
New York Times, 10/30/2008

– There are no published results yet, but that’s not unusual in ancient Near Eastern archaeology, which has a fairly conservative perspective on the pace of peer review, but this is a situation where one could get scooped at any moment, so announcing a find early, to be followed up by potentially years of peer review, is not unusual in this area.

– Dating by association is a well-established archaeological technique: if two artifacts are found in the same layer, they are likely of similar age. I have no reason to think the date is off in this case, but we need to recognize right off the top that if the olive pits and the shard ended up in the same layer for reasons other than that they were deposited at around the same time, the date could be way off.

– It is true that this ostracon predates the Dead Sea Scrolls by up to 1000 years, if the dating is right. True, but irrelevant. The Dead Sea Scrolls are frequently invoked in reporting on biblical archaeology as a benchmark for ‘really old Bible stuff’, but in this case, it gives the misleading impression that what has been found is a lot older than other paleo-Hebrew writings, which is simply not the case. The Gezer calendar, which dates to perhaps 925-900 BCE (based on the paleographic style of the text), is the next oldest well-attested Hebrew inscription and is one of many, many paleo-Hebrew texts from the Iron Age in the Levant. This new find extends the history of the script back another 50-75 years, which is interesting – but it has nothing whatsoever to do with the DSS.

– The claim that this would be the ‘earliest Hebrew writing’ is true but isn’t exactly saying what you think. There are any number of other inscriptions in Semitic languages from this period – for instance, there are Phoenician inscriptions from Byblos dating to around 1000 BCE. The text on the ostracon is apparently in Proto-Canaanite script, of which most of our exemplars are from the late Bronze Age (i.e., around 1500-1000 BCE), used to write any number of ancient Semitic languages, as the BBC article notes. So the script itself is not particularly unusual for the period, and doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know.

– And this brings us to a significant issue: the ostracon hasn’t been deciphered yet. So how do we know it’s Hebrew? Well, the BBC tells us, “Preliminary investigations since the shard was found in July have deciphered some words, including judge, slave and king.” and that “Lead archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel identified it as Hebrew because of a three-letter verb meaning “to do” which he said was only used in Hebrew.” This is significant because it identifies the language as Hebrew as opposed to something earlier. This one word on an as-yet incompletely-deciphered ostracon is being used to assert that the writer was a speaker of Hebrew, therefore an Israelite, and therefore that this provides evidence for the Kingdom of Israel in David’s time (e.g. the early 10th century BCE). But we would do well to remember that this is very preliminary stuff. Also bear in mind that our corpus of proto-Canaanite writings is small enough that it is impossible to know whether this form of “to do” was only used in Hebrew, or whether it could have been used in earlier Semitic languages as well.

– The claim is being made by several sources that this ostracon provides evidence for the historicity of King David. Not so. Rather, the claim is that the fact that there is such early writing demonstrates a high level of social complexity and a system of scribal education at the period. If true, this would tend to confirm that there was a large state in Israel in the 10th century BCE, and if one wished to associate that with the Biblical David, one could choose to do so without contradicting the evidence. The presence of words like ‘judge’ and ‘king’ in the text (if confirmed) would provide support for this position from within the text. This stands in opposition to the theory that the Israelites were more egalitarian and disunified at this period, as suggested by the heretofore pretty scanty record from the 10th century. If the latter were true, the Old Testament account would be open to more serious scrutiny; this new find doesn’t confirm the validity of anything Biblical, but rather doesn’t disconfirm it. And remember, this is one ostracon only, not an archive or even a small collection – so we have little idea of what it means. Rollston (2006), who is generally supportive of the argument that there was significant scribal education in Iron Age Israel, discusses many of the complexities behind inferring widespread literacy from the epigraphic/paleographic record.

– On the same topic: Hello, journalists? Could I make a suggestion? Just because you are writing an article about Iron Age Israel and a purported connection with King David does not mean you have to invoke Goliath. Seriously. Especially you, Daily Mail, for citing this undeciphered clay shard as evidence that David actually slew Goliath. At least the Telegraph just presents the theory that the David-Goliath story is a metaphor for Israelite-Philistine conflict at the period.

– One thing that is hardly mentioned is that the ostracon is the longest text in proto-Canaanite script yet attested. This could have important implications for our understanding of the script, once the inscription is read completely. Moreover, once it is read thoroughly, the paleographic letter-forms may actually tell us quite a bit about the date of the inscription, which could tend to confirm or refute the radiocarbon date.

– It would be a mistake to ignore the implications for the historicity of the Iron Age Kingdom of Israel for modern national conceptions and ethnic identity in contemporary Israel. The idea that 3000 years ago, there was a strong, militarily powerful unified kingdom of Israelites in that area has enormous symbolic appeal, and is one of the more controversial issues in contemporary Levantine archaeology. This issue was behind the debate over the tenure case of Nadia Abu El Haj at Barnard/Columbia a couple of years back, centrally concerned with her book, Facts on the Ground (Abu el Haj 2001).

In general, though, the presentation of the data is pretty good and the context of the discussion is generally sane. We have a lot still to learn, and I look forward to seeing the publication of the text in the hopefully not-too-distant future.

Nadia Abu El Haj (2001). Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rollston, Christopher A. 2006. Scribal education in ancient Israel: the Old Hebrew epigraphic evidence. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 344: 47-74.

News roundup

A few tidbits of recent news:

There’s an interesting article in the New York Times on what is described as ‘elderspeak‘: the use of kindly but demeaning and belittling forms of address towards elders by medical professions.  What isn’t discussed, as noted in Ozarque’s Journal, is that this register is essentially restricted to talking to female elders, and that it is not only the words used, but the variety of paralinguistic contextual information (body language, intonation, etc.) that makes this form of language use so odious.

In the news from Near Eastern epigraphy, a bowl has been found at Alexandria dating between the 2nd century BC and the 1st century AD describing ‘Christ’ as a ‘magician’ (goistais).    Or maybe it is describing ‘Chrestos’, a member of an association known as Ogoistais.   The dating is broad enough to refer to either a pre-Christian or early Christian context, and probably we will never know any more than that.

As someone who has studied Latin, one of my pet peeves is the notion that learning Latin (as opposed to learning any other language) is a key to academic success.  I believe that the correlation between taking Latin and academic success is the other way around: bright, intellectually curious students take Latin, but were predisposed to academic success anyway.  We have another article in the New York Times this week suggesting that thousands more students are picking Latin than in the recent past; I welcome the trend, but wonder whether these kids are taking the subject for the right reason.

Finally, a recent evolutionary-psychological study suggests that women prefer more intelligent men for both short and long-term relationships: that even in terms of thinking about a ‘fling’, there was some observable effect of intelligence on sexual appeal after watching videos of various potential mates.   I’m not going to get started on studies like this today, but stay tuned.   My own anecdotal evidence (sample of one) suggests that this finding is at best an exaggeration …

Macarthur news: Stephen Houston

I woke up this morning to some exciting news for those of us involved in writing and literacy studies in anthropology.  Stephen Houston, professor of anthropology at Brown University, has been awarded one of this year’s Macarthur fellowships.   The Macarthur is probably the most prestigious award any social scientist or humanist can receive, providing $500,000 in funding over five years with absolutely no strings attached.

Steve is one of the most fascinating scholars I know, and his work on Maya hieroglyphic writing and iconography exemplifies the social and integrative approach to linguistics, epigraphy, and archaeology that motivates me.  His paper, ‘The archaeology of communication technologies’ is in my opinion the most important and accessible existing statement of this perspective; I foist it on my students at every opportunity (Houston 2004).  In it, he makes the case that archaeological decipherment needs to focus both on extracting meaning from ancient texts and on situating those writings in their sociocultural and political context.    Two years ago he and a team of Mesoamericanists published the (undeciphered, and possibly undecipherable) ‘Cascajal block’ in Science, exposing the scientific community at large to an artifact which seems likely to be the oldest Mesoamerican writing yet known (Martinez et al. 2006).   Because he is an anthropological archaeologist, his perspective on epigraphy is both rigorously social-scientific and unapologetically comparative.

I ought to mention that Steve is my ‘uncle’ in scholarly genealogy; he and my doctoral supervisor, the late Bruce Trigger, both studied under Michael Coe at Yale.   He has been of tremendous help to me in thinking about my book, and his kind invitation to me to participate in the School of Advanced Research seminar ‘The shape of script’ last year (edited volume to be out soon, I hope!) led to one of the most productive weeks of scholarly exchange in my life to date.

This award is obviously important to Steve, who now has the pleasurable burden of figuring out how best to use his Macarthur, but it also has ramifications for the field of archaeological decipherment as a whole.  I’m really excited about the attention that this news will draw to our small corner of the world.

Edit to add: Well, it seems as if this post is coming up on all sorts of search keywords related to Stephen Houston, so, welcome to newcomers!  I should probably include a couple of informative links:

Stephen Houston’s research page including publication list

Brown anthropology department page

Works cited

Houston, Stephen D. 2004. The archaeology of communication technologies. Annual Review of Anthropology 33: 223-250.

Ma. del Carmen Rodríguez Martínez, Ponciano Ortíz Ceballos, Michael D. Coe, Richard A. Diehl, Stephen D. Houston, Karl A. Taube, and Alfredo Delgado Calderón. 2006. Oldest writing in the New World. Science 313(5793): 1610-1614.

The politics of pinyin

One of the understudied intersections of linguistics and material culture is what I would call ‘contemporary epigraphy’: the study of modern inscriptions, ranging from traditional subjects (monumental inscriptions) to things like public signs and graffiti.  In my work on numbers, I am constantly on the alert for unusual and interesting uses of number in public texts (see this, e.g.), and recently, I and a group of senior undergraduates at McGill undertook a quantitative, spatial, and linguistically-focused survey of stop signs in Montreal, which has become the ongoing Stop: Toutes Directions project.   This sort of work combines the rigor of linguistics and grammatology (the study of writing systems) with the social analysis of archaeology and urban geography and the textual focus of classical epigraphy and semiotics.

For this reason, I was very interested to see in the news that Taiwan is simplifying its romanization of Chinese writing and will be replacing a huge number of public signs.  Essentially, before now, there was no standard way to transliterate Chinese into a Roman script (not to mention the difficulties in transliterating Chinese into Chinese script).  The existence of multiple standards can lead to all sorts of confusion, because, as the article linked above points out, ‘Minquan Road’ and ‘Minchuan Road’ may in fact be the same road named using two different standards.   This Wikipedia article illustrates the enormous difficulties this might present.  The cost of changing signs that are not in the variant chosen as the new standard (hanyu pinyin) will be considerable.

The pinyin system that has been chosen by the Taiwanese government is probably the most common one used today, primarily due to its official acceptance in the People’s Republic of China (i.e. the mainland) since the 50s and internationally since the 70s.  The article presents the most recent Taiwanese reform as one aimed at international visitors / non-native Chinese speakers, and undoubtedly that is part of the answer.  But any change that brings Taiwan closer to China is not only a business decision but also a sociopolitical one.  The article notes, “Ma’s predecessor resisted the writing system to snub China, which claims sovereignty over the self-ruled island, critics say,” which is no doubt another part of the story.   This change in sign policy is part of ongoing tensions between pro-independence and pro-reintegration factions in Taiwan, and such, echoes the sorts of issues that I have witnessed firsthand in Montreal, where sign texts are important subjects of political and social discourse.

These questions, then, cannot be fully separated from issues of language ideology – how particular languages, dialects, and utterances are conceptualized and evaluated (positively or negatively) both by individuals and by institutions.  It will be very interesting to follow this story as the new changes come into effect.

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