Nautical Archaeology and Biblical Archaeology 4

Shipwreckecked Plant Remains

Cheryl Ward Haldane

By studying shreds and scraps of plant tissues from archaeological investigations, archaeobotanists learn how people used plants in the past. Such remains are usually waterlogged or desiccated by their environment, or are charred by cooking or burning. Although late-nineteenth-century excavations in Egypt and Scandinavia produced sensational finds of ancient plant remains, archaeobotany’s greatest growth came in the 1960s when excavators like Robert Braidwood sought to learn when animals and plants were domesticated in the Near East. Archaeobotanists followed the pioneering example of Hans Helbaek and began to study plant remains to learn about ancient peoples and how they used the world around them.

The introduction of flotation processes to separate charred organic material from dirt was a revolutionary step in archaeobotany. The larger, more varied samples obtained by flotation allow more exact comparisons with modern and ancient ecological and economic systems, ways of manipulating plant products, and patterns of resource exploitation.

In the Near East, charred seeds are the most common plant remains. Agricultural crops such as wheat, barley, peas, lentils, beans, and flax are often present on land sites. On the other hand, only three charred grains have been identified in more than 600 samples from 10 eastern Mediterranean shipwrecks, although a single sample from a Byzantine wreck yielded more than 600 grape seeds. Shipwreck archaeobotany produces abundant remains of fruits, nuts, and spices seldom found on land sites.

Shipwreck Archaeobotany

In the Mediterranean, shipwrecks usually appear as low mounds of shipping jars (amphoras) on the seabed. Waterlogged and charred plant seeds, twigs, leaves, fruits, wood, and other plant tissues, as well as animal and fish bones, insects, dung, and hairs can be found in samples taken from the site, even if the wreck is exposed.

During the first 15 years of scientific exploration, beginning in the 1950s, serendipitous finds of fruit stones and nuts from many Mediterranean shipwrecks suggested the variety of wares transported by sea and the potential value of archaeobotanical analysis of such remains. It was not until the 1970s, however, that archaeologists attempted to systematically retrieve plant tissues that were not part of the hulls of ships. Between 1974 and 1980, the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) sponsored four excavations in which archaeobotanical investigation was standard procedure. In each case, the organic samples proved that the shipping jars had carried wine, but traces of previous cargoes and other materials aboard the ship provided us with additional information about the production and exchange of goods.

In 1984, INA began excavation of the Late Bronze Age shipwreck at Ulu Burun, Turkey. George F. Bass, director of the excavation, enthusiastically supported the idea of retrieving every possible bit of organic material from the wreck for study. The dedication of the excavation team resulted in a unique assemblage of plant remains that offers a glimpse into a little-known aspect of ancient life. It is interesting to note that all but two of the plants identified so far are among the relatively few plants named in the Bible, where scarcely more than 100 of the 2,300 plant species found in biblical lands are mentioned (Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible 1962: 285).

The ship’s cargo mirrored records of royal tribute exchanged by Late Bronze Age Egyptian and Near Eastern rulers and included the most luxurious and expensive items of the time: copper, tin, and glass ingots; gold and silver jewelry; unworked elephant and hippopotamus ivory; Egyptian ebony logs (Dalbergia melanoxylon); and several small and large stirrup jars that archaeologists believe carried perfume (Bass 1986; Pulak 1988).

As excavators raised more than 100 Canaanite shipping jars, we learned that the ship had also carried about half a ton of terebinth resin from Pistacia terebinthus, identified by John Mills of the National Gallery of London and the Hairfields of Mary Baldwin College (Hairfield and Hairfield 1990). The chunks of resin retain their sharp, pungent, turpentine-like odor today. Although the terebinth, or turpentine tree, is mentioned in the Bible (Isaiah 6:13; Hosea 4:13, Revised Standard Version) and other ancient texts, this huge quantity of resin was puzzling at first. But Mycenaean Greek Linear B tablets, Egyptian texts, Classical Greek writings, and modern ethnographic evidence provided the clues we needed to understand why the resin was included with the exotic and valuable goods carried on the ship.

A group of Linear B clay tablets, dating to the end of the Bronze Age, lists the names of plants possibly used in perfumery, cooking, and medicine. Among these names is ki-ta-no, translated by Jose Melena (1976: 180) as terebinth nuts. The word occurs rarely, and the Ulu Burun cargo suggests that terebinth resin, rather than its edible nuts, may have been the intended meaning (Bass 1987).

We know from several classical authors that terebinth resin was highly valued. Accordirig to Theophrastus (Enquiry into Plants 9.2.2; see Hort 1916: 223), “There are also differences in the resin obtained from different trees. The best is that of the terebinth, for it sets firm, is the most fragrant, and has the most delicate smell; but the yield is not abundant.” Dioscorides (De Materia Medica I.71.1–6; see Wellmann 1958: 67–70) describes the preparation of terebinth resin for “good smelling” emollients and perfumed oils and notes that, when boiled, terebinth resin was also valued for coloring perfumed oils. Pliny (Natural History 13.2.7–8; see Rackham 1945: 103) notes that terebinth resin was used in perfumes and acted as an astringent to retain scent.

Theophrastus also provides us with a possible source for the resin: a … Around Syrian Damascus it [the terebinth tree] is abundant, large and beautiful; for they say there is a mountain all full of terebinths, but nothing else grows there.” Modern residents of Syria and Turkey collect the resin and prepare it for sale in bazaars and perfumer’s shops (White house 1957). Although terebinth grows elsewhere around the Mediterranean, only in its eastern areas do winter temperatures drop low enough to cause the tree to produce resin.

If not for perfume manufacturing, the resin lost at Ulu Burun may have been intended to be used as incense. Victor Loret interpreted the Egyptian word sntr as terebinth resin. If he is correct, Egyptian texts refer to thousands of liters of the resin being imported each year to Egypt from the Syro-Palestinian coast to be burned in ritual fumigation (Lores 1949).

Like the terebinth resin, fruits of Coriandrum sativum (coriander) are found on the Ulu Burun wreck and mentioned in Mycenaean Greek Linear B tablets. The distribution of coriander seeds in shipping jars, dunnage samples, and samples from beneath ingots suggests that the seeds were stored in baskets or woven bags which scattered their contents as they decayed. Linear B documents describe up to 720 liters of coriander seed mixed with wine, honey, and other spices in perfumery, and used in smaller amounts as a condiment (Ventris and Chadwick 1956: 221–30). According to Cynthia Shelmerdine (1985), coriander fruits were used to prepare the astringent solution necessary to hold the scent of a perfume with an olive oil base. Melena (1974: 155) has pointed out that coriander fruits were also offered to a local Mycenaean deity. Coriander was regarded by the Mycenaeans as being of Cyprian origin (Ventris and Chadwick 1956: 221), but Melena (1974) has suggested that it was grown on Crete. It is mentioned only twice in the Bible (Exodus 16:31; Numbers 11:7), in both instances simply to compare the appearance of manna to its seed. The value placed on coriander by other ancient societies can be seen in the half-liter of seeds that accompanied the pharaoh Tutankhamun in his golden tomb (Derby, Ghalioungui, and Grivetti 1977: 798).

A third possible source of astringent for ancient perfume manufacture—pomegranate juice—may be seen in the contents of one of seven large storage jars (pithoi) from the Ulu Burun shipwreck. A preliminary sorting of a sample from this 1.4-meter-tall (about 41/2 feet) pithos produced more than 1,000 seeds, flower parts, and fragments of skin from what were once whole pomegranates.

Pomegranates were so valued in antiquity that they were presented as evidence, along with figs and grapes, when the spies sent to Canaan by Moses reported: “We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit” (Numbers 13:27). Images of the pomegranate used to decorate clothing (Exodus 28:33–34, 39:24–25) and the capitals of the pillars (I Kings 7:18, 20, 42, and others) are further indication of the prominence of this fruit, whose juice was used in a spiced wine (Song of Solomon 8:2).

Although no Linear B word has been translated as pomegranate, the classical writers often refer to its astringent qualities in perfumery and medicine, and to its use as a flavoring for wines as well as its use as an edible fruit and a natural dye.

Pomegranates ripen in late August or September, suggesting that the ship may have sailed late in the season. Until medieval times, sailing in the Mediterranean was restricted to the months between late April and early September because of storms. Although it seems likely that the pomegranates aboard the Ulu Burun ship were fresh, it is possible that the fruits were from the previous autumn. Columella (Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella on Agriculture 5.10.16; see Forster and Heffner 1954: 97) provides instructions for preserving whole pomegranates for more than a year, and modern Turkish villagers store pomegranates year-round using similar methods.

Pomegranates are rarely found in Bronze Age archaeological deposits on land, but there are two charred seeds in samples from the early third millennium BCE at Arad (Hopf 1978: 74); seeds and skin fragments from Bronze Age Jericho (Kenyon 1960: 371,392–393, and plate XVII.4; Hopf 1969: 357) and Twelfth Dynasty Egypt (Derby, Ghalioungui, and Grivetti 1977: 742); waterlogged seeds at Hala Sultan Tekke on Cyprus about 1200 BCE (Hjelmqvist 1979: 112); and in many finds from the seventh century BCE onward.

Pomegranate trees are mentioned in the funerary texts of Tuthmosis I (around 1530 BCE) and appear in tomb paintings of approximately 100 years later. The tomb of Sebkhotep shows two men carrying pomegranates (Davies 1936: plate XLIV): One carries a basket, the other a string of fruits tied together. A painting from the Late Bronze Age tomb of Menna shows two women, one of whom carries a bouquet that includes crimson pomegranate fruits (Davies 1936: plate LII). Sir Arthur J. Evans described ivory pomegranate buds and flowers from the Middle Minoan III period at the palace of Minos on Knossos (1921: 496).

The Ulu Burun shipwreck also yielded a few safflower (Carthamus tinctoria) seeds, several thousand fig seeds, an amphora full of olive stones, and two charred cereal grains: one wheat and one barley. Linear B texts also record these commodities, and all but safflower are mentioned frequently in the Bible. Several shells of almonds, also mentioned many times in the Bible, sumac (Rhus coriaria) fruits, and grape seeds complete the roster of economic plants; about 15 weed species are also represented.*

A puzzling discovery from other shipwrecks are the seeds, leaves and fruits of thorny burnet (Sarcopoterium spinosum), a spiny, knee-high bush best known for its possible use in the thorny wreath of Jesus. The most reasonable suggestion is that it might have been used as dunnage to create a protective cushion between the hull and its load. The Ulu Burun wreck has strengthened this hypothesis: In addition to providing more samples of seeds, entire plants, from branches to roots, were found on the lower surfaces of some of the approximately 200 four-handled copper ingots in the cargo.

Although the evaluation of samples from Ulu Burun is incomplete, some statistical analyses of about half the samples suggest some patterns in the distribution of plant remains. Of some 20 samples of charcoal, most are from scrubby trees of the family Leguminosae that line the shores of the eastern Mediterranean. The distribution of charred wood on the wreck seems to be fairly limited in area and may indicate a shipboard brazier or hearth. Charred seeds are strictly unrelated to the charcoal samples but can be correlated to the presence of an organic conglomerate of terebinth fruits, chips of resin, twigs, leaves, and mud. This conglomerate, found in about one-third of the shipping jars, may be the remains of a previous terebinth resin or fruit cargo. It is also possible that it represents imploded mud stoppers or caps (Pulak 1988). Interestingly, grape seeds found in the conglomerate are of a strikingly different shape from those found lying loosely in the ship’s bilge area. Because grape seed shape varies with the type of grape grown, these two categories probably have different origins.

As more samples from the Ulu Burun shipwreck are analyzed, the number of plant species found on this ship that once sailed along the Eastern Mediterranean coastline will grow. Simply identifying the species represented is not enough, however, and will serve only to tantalize students of ancient trade in the Mediterranean.

Studying other plant remains in jars that carried the resin may help archaeologists locate the port where the aromatic was loaded as well as learn about how jars were sealed and whether they were reused. Bass suspects that the ship traveled a circular route from the Syro-Palestinian coast to Cyprus and Mycenaean Greece or Crete before returning to the Levant via Egypt (1986: 296). If so, its cargoes of terebinth resin, coriander, and pomegranates may be added to the list of luxury items that indicate an established exchange network with markets demanding large-scale availability.


Underwater archaeobotany provides direct evidence of goods traded by sea and often produces botanical remains of plants unlike those found in charred deposits on land. The Ulu Burun shipwreck samples provide the largest Bronze Age collection of pomegranate, fig, olive, and terebinth remains, and the leaves and twigs in dunnage samples are unique representatives of Bronze Age flora used in this way. Ships, the people who sailed them, and the goods they took from port to port in the ancient Mediterranean were vital links between cultures. By studying organic as well as inorganic remains, we enrich our knowledge of humankind’s past.

(1990). Biblical Archaeologist, 53.


Nautical Archaeology and Biblical Archaeology 3

Anchors of Antiquity

Douglas Haldane

Although anchors are mentioned only twice in the Bible (Acts 27:29–30, 40; Hebrews 6:19), there is no doubt that ships and boats of the Old and New Testament periods carried anchors, sometimes in great numbers. For almost as long as ships have sailed, sailors have relied upon anchors to secure their cargoes, ships, and lives. Integral parts of the shipping industry, anchors reveal more than just how and why they were built; they also reveal general trading environments and technological advances of their time. Seemingly insignificant anchors may reflect the historical developments of empires.

Throughout history there have been only three general types of anchors—stone, wood, and iron. Stone anchors, known to Homeric Greeks as eunai, or “beds,” because of their slab-like shape, are either weight or composite anchors. Weight anchors depended on their mass to hold ships, whereas stakes through the lower holes of composite anchors gripped the seabed. Refinements in stone anchor construction included grooves in anchor tops, to reduce anchor line chafing, and notches in a lower corner for attaching buoyed lines to free anchors wedged between rocks.

Honor Frost (1970) used these notches, inscriptions and other archaeological evidence to identify stone anchors by national type. Egyptian stone anchors have been found all along the Levantine coast from Dor/Tantura (Wachsmann and Raveh 1984: 225) to Ugarit (Frost 1969: 245). Byblian anchors are rarely found outside of Byblos, but two were discovered at Ugarit, and a group of 12 was found recently at Newe-Yam, Israel (Galili 1985). Both weight and composite Ugaritic anchors have been found along the Levantine coast, at Thebes in Upper Egypt (McCaslin 1980), Cyprus (Karageorghis 1976: 878), and most recently on the Late Bronze Age shipwreck at Ulu Burun near Kas, Turkey (Pulak 1988a: 33, 1988b: 15).

The similarity between Ugaritic anchors and those found on Cyprus, on land and underwater, suggests that trade relations between the Syrian mainland and Cyprus were so close that the distinguishing anchor features became blurred. Finds of Ugaritic anchors along the Levantine coast, and a possible fragment at Kommos, Crete (Straw and Blitzer 1983: 99), add to a growing body of evidence for a circular trade route in the eastern Mediterranean (Bass 1986:296).

The distribution of stone anchors yields tangible evidence confirming Egyptian tomb reliefs and literature. The Ugaritic anchor at Thebes acts as a calling card left by Syrian merchants portrayed in the fourteenth-century-BCE tomb of Kenamon (Davies and Faulkner 1947). Egyptian anchors found at Dor, one of the Egyptian emissary Wenamun’s stops around 1100 BCE, confirm that the harbor was used as an Egyptian way station on the route to and from Syria. Anchor finds also yield evidence for anchoring practice.

As with later wooden and iron anchors, sailors probably used several stone anchors simultaneously to moor their ships. Scholars have suggested that a ship’s anchor complement consisted of composite anchors, for sandy sea bottoms, and weight anchors for rocky bottoms (Frost 1969:236–37). However, the only two groups of related stone anchors—the 12 found at Newe-Yam (Galili 1985) and the 23 discovered at Ulu Burun—varied in size, not in type; all are weight anchors. The Newe-Yam anchors range from 60 to 155 kilograms (from around 132 to 342 pounds); the Ulu Burun anchors have yet to be raised and studied.

Dramatic changes in stone anchor shape probably occurred toward the end of the seventh century BCE when the Greek word ankura, “bent,” replaced eunai in textual references (Kapitän 1984: 33–36). Almost as proof of their typological predecessors, early wooden anchors used stone stocks—the heavy crossbars that prevented an anchor from lying flat—to force the ends of its arms to dig into the sea bed. Even after lead stocks replaced those of stone, stocks continued to be known as stones (Durrbach and Roussel 1929: text 443, lines 92, 184).

Before the discovery of a wooden anchor and an iron anchor mooring Caligula’s barges at Lake Nemi in the late 1920s, scholars could only speculate about how wooden anchors were built. Since then, four types of stocks used on wooden anchors have been identified: stone (I); wood with lead cores (II); lead (III) occasionally with wood cores (C); and removable lead stocks (IV). Greco-Roman literature and archaeological remains present a clearer image of wooden and iron anchors than for stone anchors.

Greeks called anchors hanging gear, probably because they hung from bows and sterns (Casson 1971: 265), stays (Athenaeus, The Deipnosophists, book 3, chapter 99, paragraph d; see Gulick 1927: 428–29), or even hectors (Lucian, Lexiphanes, paragraph 15; see Harmon 1936: 312–13), perhaps alluding to the staying quality of Hector’s courage. Many authors refer to the largest of a ship’s anchor complement as the “sacred anchor,” thrown with the last prayer to the gods to keep the ship off the rocks (Lucian, Zeus Rants, paragraph 51; see Harmon 1960: 164–65).

Roman authors made more specific references to anchors. Arms or even entire anchors were known as “hooks” (Virgil, Aeneid, book 1, line 169; see Lewis 1953). The conical iron or bronze caps that reinforced arm ends were commonly called “teeth” (Livy, book 37, chapter 30, lines 9–10; see Sage 1935: 378–79) because of their tooth-like shape, but Plutarch called them “claws” (Plutarch, Moralia: Bravery of Women, chapter 247, paragraph e; see Babbitt 1961: 500–01).

Archaeological evidence has substantiated literary references that were once thought apocryphal. Pliny credited the anchor’s invention to Eupalamus and the two-armed anchor to Anacharsis (Natural History, book 7, chapter 56, paragraph 209; see Rackham 1942: 646–47). References like Pliny’s, and Strabo’s specific mention of the two-armed anchor (The Geography, book 7, chapter 3, paragraph 9; see Jones 1924: 206–07), were thought strange until a reinforcement collar made especially for a one-armed anchor was found near Brindisi, Italy (Kapitan 1984). A third-century-C.E. Egyptian loan contract also makes mention of a one-armed iron anchor (see Kenyon and Bell 1907, papyrus 1164 (h), volume 3: 49). Evidently Greco-Roman sailors chose from a variety of anchors.

With the discovery of the first Century-C.E. Nemi anchors and a fragmentary anchor on the second-century-BCE Chrètienne ‘C’ wreck (Joncheray 1975a), scholars reamed more about anchor arm construction than Greco-Roman authors could tell them. Arms were fastened to anchor shanks with z-shaped hook joints that were, in turn, secured by mortise-and-tenon joints. Pegs placed perpendicularly through tenons in the lower parts of anchor arms locked the tenons in position. When arm/shank joints loosened with wear, reinforcement collars poured onto anchors held the anchor arms in position (Haldane 1986).

Greco-Roman sailors did not forget the lesson learned from Egyptian stone anchors. Pliny recorded that cork was used on anchor cables (Natural History, book 16, chapter 13, paragraph 34; see Rackham 1945: 410–11) to mark an anchor’s location. These lines, tied to anchor crowns on wooden anchors or crown rings, freed anchors stuck on the sea bed.

But unlike stone anchors, wooden anchors do not readily fit into distinctive cultural subtypes. In general, Greeks used stone-stocked anchors (Type I), whereas Romans used solid lead (Type III) stocks. Types II and IV were transitional. Type II represents a shift from stone to lead stocks, and Type IV represents a more drastic change from wooden anchors to iron anchors. Both transitions were products of historical and technological developments.

Creation of stone stocks often required both a stonemason’s labor and his expertise, but even the most carefully made stocks broke on rocky sea bottoms. Lead-cored wooden stocks were not as fragile, but their number was directly linked to the supply of lead. Lead, a byproduct of silver mining, was dependent on the relative efficiency of silver production. Early silver extraction techniques were so inefficient that the Romans profited by reworking early Greek slag heaps. By the late third century BCE, the Romans gained control of the rich Spanish silver mines. Silver was produced on a grand scale, which caused the price of lead to fall, and Type III solid lead stocks appeared almost simultaneously.

Most Type III stocks have been found in the western Mediterranean, reflecting a predominantly Roman use of this type and the western Mediterranean’s role as the primary Roman trading center. On the other hand, many Type IV removable stocks have been found in the eastern Mediterranean. These stocks, able to be broken down and stored when not in use, belonged to smaller anchors than Type III stocks and suggest the use of smaller ships. The versatility of removable stocked anchors foreshadows a growing dependence on removable-stocked iron anchors.

Herodotus made the earliest recorded reference to iron anchors in the early fifth century BCE (History, book 9, chapter 74; see Godley 1924: 246–47). Wood and iron anchors were used simultaneously at first. Athenaeus mentioned them together on Hieron of Syracuse’s mammoth third-century-BCE ship, the Siracusia (The Deipnosophists, book 5, paragraph 208; see Gulick 1957: 440–41), and, as discovered on several shipwrecks, wood and iron anchors appeared together as late as the first century C.E. As ironworking technology developed in the Mediterranean, however, wooden anchors were used less often.

The first conclusive evidence of manufacturing anchors to predetermined specifications can be seen in iron anchors. Ironworkers inscribed the Nemi iron anchor’s weight in Roman pounds on its shank (Speziale 1931). Ironworkers continually refined anchor forging processes in the Byzantine period. The anchor complement of the seventh-century Yassi Ada Byzantine ship may have ranged from smallest to largest in increments of 50 Roman pounds (Bass and van Doorninck 1982: 134). Anchor forging as well as iron anchor forms show progressive development. The study of anchors provides evidence not only for the anchors and their use on ships but also for perceptions of economic environments in which they were used. Anchors reflect changes in the economic, technological, and social conditions of Mediterranean seafaring nations.

The arms of early iron anchors imitated the sharp V pattern of wooden anchors, such as the fourth-century-BCE Isola di Monte Cristo anchor, but gradually relaxed to the lunate shape of the Nemi iron anchor. Continued arm relaxation from the first to fourth centuries C.E. can be seen in the Dramont D and F anchors. Christianization of the Roman Empire extended to anchors, as seen in the cruciform shape of the seventh-century Yassi Ada anchors. Anchor arm angles relative to shanks grew past cruciform until they reached the Y shape of the eleventh-century Serçe Limani anchors.

Provenance of cruciform and Y-shaped anchors suggests that the center of trade shifted back to the eastern Mediterranean after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Unstable economic and trading conditions in the Mediterranean following the West’s collapse in the fifth century and the Islamic conquest in the seventh century C.E. dictated the use of smaller, faster ships. Deck space was at a premium, and although the Romans had dealt with the lead shortage, bulky wooden anchors were still subject to rot and shipworm damage. Use of durable, removable-stocked iron anchors aboard ships became the rule.

(1990). Biblical Archaeologist, 53.


Nautical Archaeology and Biblical Archaeology 2

Ships in the Ancient Mediterranean

Steve Vinson

The earliest evidence of travel on the Mediterranean Sea is from

the Mesolithic period, at least 10,000 years ago, when voyagers left the mainland of Greece in watercraft of some kind, traveled to the island of Melos, and returned with obsidian to make sharp-edged implements. Large fish bones, including deep sea fish like tunny, have also been found at Neolithic sites in Greece, further indicating travel on the sea.

Archaeologists have not, however, found actual examples of or depictions of the crafts used by the earliest sailors. Were they reed boats, dugout canoes, skin boats, or simple rafts? Polynesian islanders knew how to make complex planked boats without the use of metal tools, but it is not yet known if that step was taken during the Stone Age in the Mediterranean or at some other time. It is unlikely that the early Mediterranean boats had sails, and they were almost certainly paddled rather than rowed.

Early Shipbuilding

The known history of shipbuilding begins in Egypt around 3500 BCE About that time, in the Predynastic period, Egyptians began painting a peculiar type of boat on finely made pots. These boats, often called sickle-shaped because of their crescent-like form, seem to have been among the earliest wooden boats built with planks. Actual remains of those early boats have not yet been found, but there are a few clues to their construction.*

Planks first appeared in Egypt, usually in graves as parts of primitive coffins or as roofing material, at about the same time the boats were first painted on pottery. The planks were up to 2 inches thick and more than 6 feet long and were usually lashed together with cords of grass or palm fiber. It is likely that the earliest planked boats in Egypt were built in much the same way, with lashings rather than nails.

There is better evidence from a few centuries later. In 1912, several planks that were apparently from boats were discovered in a First Dynasty cemetery in a village near Cairo called Tarkhan. The planks date to around 3000 BCE, only a few years after Egypt was united under the rule of its first pharaoh.

These planks had all the features that were found in intact boats from a few centuries later. The planks were literally sewed to one another by ropes threaded through V-shaped holes cut into the plank faces. In the edges of the planks were mortises, and the boat builder inserted a small, flat piece of wood called a tenon into each of these. A single tenon was inserted into the matching mortises of two adjoining planks, which were set flush against each other to hold them in place while the boat builder sewed them together.

The largest known boats built in this period were about 50 feet long. No boats from this period have been found intact, but several pits that once contained boats have been discovered in royal or noble cemeteries. The best of these was found in the tomb of Den (sometimes called Udimu), the fifth king of the First Egyptian Dynasty.

When it was discovered, Den’s grave contained the remains of a boat, but the remains were in such fragmentary condition that they could not be examined in detail and were eventually lost. The boat seems to have been about 43 feet long, less than 10 feet wide, and no more than 3 feet deep amidships. Walter Emery, the British Egyptologist who discovered the tomb, noted that the boat had a deck and that the wood was covered with white plaster. There was no evidence of a mast or sail, but boat drawings indicate that sails had already been in use for at least a century.

The finest and best preserved ancient boat anywhere belonged to the Egyptian Pharaoh Cheops, for whom the Great Pyramid at Giza was built. It may be seen today in a special museum next to the pyramid of Cheops. (A second boat still lies unexcavated in its pit next to the pyramid.) Like the pyramid, the boat dates to about 2650 BCE, in the period of Egyptian history called the Old Kingdom. It is almost 150 feet long and was built mainly of imported cedar, with its planks held in place by mortise-and-tenon joints and lashing. Its planks are not long strakes running from bow to stem but instead are oddly shaped and fit together almost like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

More than 2,000 years after the Cheops boat was built, the Greek historian Herodotus (see Grene 1987) commented that Egyptian boatbuilders used short lengths of wood to build their boats and that the pattern of the planking was similar to laid bricks. This was necessary because most native Egyptian trees, then as now, do not grow very tall, and long planks could not be made from them. There is a similar pattern in the Cheops boat. It apparently was built by craftsmen who were accustomed to using short pieces of local wood, even though the huge cedars imported from Lebanon or Syria could easily have been cut into long planks.

The Cheops boat has several odd features, however. It was built in the shell-first method, meaning that its planks were lashed together before its ribs, which boatbuilders call frames, were inserted. It had no keel but was built up from a flat bottom of planks. Because it had no keel to stiffen it, two heavy longitudinal beams located at deck level helped prevent the vessel’s bow and stern from drooping. These beams acted much as a bowstring keeps a bow curved. Nevertheless, Egyptian depictions indicate that such heavy beams were often not enough, and a cable that could be continuously tightened ran from bow to stern to keep the ends of a seagoing hull up. The problem of the vessel’s ends drooping is called hogging, and the cable is called a hogging truss.

Advances in Technology

The next major step in Mediterranean shipbuilding was taken no later than the fourteenth century BCE, the middle of the Late Bronze Age. By that time, some shipbuilders ceased using lashings to sew planks to one another and began relying on the mortise-and-tenon joints. It was discovered that simply driving a wooden peg through the tenon on either side of the joint would lock the planks in place, creating an extremely strong joint.

The earliest evidence of such pegged mortise-and-tenon joints was found on a fourteenth-century-BCE shipwreck discovered in 1983 off Ulu Burun on the southwestern coast of Turkey, near the small resort town of Kas. This vessel was built with mortise-and-tenon joints and had a keel. Its construction signaled the arrival of shipbuilding principles that were to prevail in the Eastern Mediterranean until the early Middle Ages.

Interestingly, the earliest examples of this kind of joinery come from Egyptian furniture that was manufactured at about the same time as the Tarkhan boat planks. It is difficult to explain why the early Egyptians didn’t grasp the obvious advantages of using pegged mortise-and-tenon joints in their boats. The lashing method, however, may have made repairs easier or may have enabled the Egyptians to take their boats apart and put them back together with hardly any special tools. Shelley Wachsmann has pointed out that pegged mortise-and-tenon joints were used in furniture at Jericho during the succeeding Middle Bronze Age, suggesting the possibility that similar hull construction began somewhere on the Syro-Canaanite coast.

The Cheops boat had no mast or sail, and no rigging elements of the Kaş shipwreck have yet been found. For now, the only information about rigging during the Bronze Age comes from reliefs, paintings, and boat models. Most of these are Egyptian, although a beautiful Late Bronze Age fresco showing rigging details was found in a house buried beneath volcanic ash at Akrotiri on the Greek island of Santorini (Thera).

These early representations present essentially the same picture of single square sails, although the proportions of the sails vary. Throughout most of the Bronze Age, the bottoms of the sails were spread by both upper and lower yards. In the absence of pulleys, lines used to raise and/or support these yards were simply looped through rings at the top of the mast.

As mentioned above, ancient Mediterranean boats were built from the outside in. The framing was inserted only after the hull—or most of it—was completed. We know this is true because, in some cases, the frames were not physically attached to the keel, and components of the frames were not even attached to each other; thus, the frames could not have been erected first. In other instances, frames were found directly over the pegs that were driven, in to lock the tenons in place. This shows that the pegs must have been in place before the frames were installed.

This type of shipbuilding is often called Greco-Roman shipbuilding because it was the method used by the classical Greeks and Romans. One of the best examples is a ship dating to the fourth century BCE excavated off the northern coast of Cyprus in 1968 and 1969 by Michael and Susan Katzev. The vessel was raised and its fragments reassembled by J. Richard Steffy in a museum in the Cypriot town of Kyrenia.

The Kyrenia ship was a beamy merchant vessel, of the type the Greeks called a holkas, and was made principally of Aleppo pine. Like almost all ships of her time, she carried a single square sail (representations of two-masted vessels before Roman times are very rare). The wreck featured one of the earliest examples of a block for a pulley. Also found on the ship were numerous small brailing rings, or lead rings sewn into the sail. These guided the lines that ran from the bottom to the top of the sail and over the yard aft and were used to raise, lower, or shape the sail.

The Kyrenia ship’s hull was covered with thin lead sheets tacked over a layer of agave leaves in thick resin. Lead sheathing was common throughout classical antiquity, but in this case the sheets were later additions to the hull and were used as waterproofing and to keep marine worms from boring into the wood.

As a joint project, the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) and the Hellenic Institute for the Preservation of Nautical Traditions commissioned Greek shipwrights to build a replica of the Kyrenia ship using ancient methods. Although the techniques of Greco-Roman construction had been lost for more than a millennium, the shipwrights agreed to try to duplicate them. The resulting ship was strong enough to weather the full gale that she was caught in while sailing from Cyprus to Greece after tracing the vessel’s original route in the opposite direction.

Increases in Dimension

The political and military chaos following Alexander the Great’s death in Babylon in 323 BCE, as Alexander’s generals apportioned the empire, caused warships to be constructed on an unprecedented scale. This activity spilled over into merchant ship construction, particularly with the advent of the Roman Imperial period. The Mediterranean Sea had become a Roman lake, and enormous trade opportunities were available.

Roman ships could be quite large and elaborate. The wine carrier that wrecked at La Madrague de Giens near Toulon, France, had two layers of planking, close-set frames, and was more than 130 feet (40 meters) long. Ships of this size are believed to have been relatively common, though most seagoing craft were from 50 to 100 feet (15 to 30 meters) long.

As for earlier times, art is the principal source of information about Roman sails and rigging. Reliefs, paintings, mosaics, and graffiti show numerous elements, including small steering sails called artemons slung out over the bow, as well as triangular topsails on mainmasts. Fore-and-aft sails appeared in about the second century C.E.

By the time of Jesus, ship construction that utilized pegged mortise-and-tenon joints had reached its zenith. In the early Byzantine period these joints were no longer used to provide most of the strength of a hull and instead served, as they had in Predynastic Egypt, only to align planks. As late as the seventh century C.E., hulls were still built in the shell-first method, but their joints were no longer pegged together, and their principal structural strength came from their internal framing. By the eleventh century, the shell-first method had died out in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the modern era of shipbuilding had been born, as rudimentary pre-erected frames first made their appearance.

(1990). Biblical Archaeologist, 53.


Nautical Archaeology and Biblical Archaeology

Nautical Archaeology and Biblical Archaeology

George F. Bass

From the beginning, the relationship between the new field of nautical archaeology and more traditional terrestrial archaeology in biblical lands has been symbiotic. They should not be considered separate fields. Neither can ignore the other in our attempts to learn about the past.

The recent rash of exciting discoveries in biblical waters shows that nautical archaeology, like numismatics, demands specialized training over and above that gained through standard courses in archaeology, history, and languages.

Advantages of Nautical Archaeology

A study of shipwrecks concerns more than just their hulls. Nautical archaeology is an integral part of Near Eastern archaeology, as it is of classical, historical, medieval, and Far Eastern archaeology. It cannot stand alone as a separate branch of archaeology, but when drawing on knowledge gained through traditional terrestrial excavation, nautical archaeologists can provide unique information not found by digging on land.

The Late Bronze Age shipwreck being excavated at Ulu Burun, Turkey, by the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A & M University, provides excellent examples of the interplay between finds made on land and those raised from the sea (Bass 1986, 1987; Pulak 1988; Bass, Pulak, Collon, and Weinstein 1989).

It now seems that the ship sank off Ulu Burun during the second half of the fourteenth century BCE or, perhaps, the very early thirteenth century. We have used pottery for this rough dating. Should we, however, find something on the site that provides a more exact date, such as an inscribed tablet, then the situation would be reversed: Because of the large quantity of ceramics from various lands in the closed deposit formed by the wreck, we would be able to date many types of Near Eastern, Cypriot, and Mycenaean pottery more closely than has previously been possible. This, in turn, would help other archaeologists date their strata and tombs on land.*

Another example of how nautical archaeology and traditional Near Eastern archaeology benefit one another is our study of the famous cuneiform tablets found just over a century ago at el-Amarna in Egypt (Moran, Haas, and Wilhelm 1987). Because those tablets give detailed lists of raw and manufactured materials sent from the Syro-Palestinian coast to Egypt, often in the same century in which the Ulu Burun ship sank, we thought that they could reveal something about the nature of the ship’s last voyage.

The Ulu Burun ship’s cargo so closely matches tablet descriptions of royal tribute shipped from Near Eastern rulers to the pharaoh in Egypt that it almost surely was a royal cargo. For example, tablets list shipments of 80, 100, and 200 talents of copper from the King of Alasia. The Ulu Burun ship carried around 200 copper ingots, each weighing about 60 pounds. If the talent equaled around 60 modern pounds, as is believed, it is clear that the Ulu Burun cargo equals the largest royal shipment of copper described in the tablets (if we ignore the listing of a shipment of 500 units of copper in which the unit is probably not a talent but a lesser weight).

Terrestrial finds, in this case, help us toward an understanding of the Ulu Burun ship. The ship, in turn, might help us interpret the Amarna tablets. As large quantities of copper were shipped only from the land called Alasia, at least sometimes and perhaps always on royal Alasian vessels, the Ulu Burun wreck might actually represent a royal vessel of Alasia. A determination of the nationality of the Ulu Burun ship, therefore, would add fuel to the controversy surrounding the identification of Alasia, which most scholars believe was Cyprus.

I am not completely convinced of this identification because the primary evidence for it is the mention in the tablets of the great quantities of copper shipped from Alasia to Egypt and because, in antiquity, Cyprus was the major source of copper in the eastern Mediterranean. It has not been proven, however, that the copper mentioned in the tablets was mined in Alasia—only that the King of Alasia was shipping it. Thus, if the Ulu Burun ship with its cargo of copper proves to be other than Cypriot, the identification of Alasia as Cyprus could be somewhat weakened.

Yet another example of how the Amarna tablets help us understand the Ulu Burun ship, while the ship, in turn, sheds new light on the tablets, is provided by the glass ingots excavated at Ulu Burun. In 1973 Leo Oppenheim suggested that the words mekku and ehlipakku on the tablets mean raw glass. His interpretation was not universally accepted; because neither raw glass nor glass ingots had ever been found on a Bronze Age site, there was no way to prove it one way or the other. Dozens of discoid ingots of cobalt-blue glass have been found stacked on the Ulu Burun ship. While this discovery strengthens Oppenheim’s theory, the tablets tell us that mekku and ehlipakku were shipped from the Near East, especially Tyre, and this, in turn, suggests the source of our ingots, although similar glass has yet to be found on land in the vicinity of Tyre.

Another raw material mentioned in the tablets is ebony, in a description of a shipment from the Egyptian pharaoh to the King of Arzawa, a land somewhere in what is now Turkey. Logs of ebony are also depicted in the fifteenth-century-BCE Tomb of Rekh-mi-rē where they are shown being brought to Egypt, along with elephant tusks, by Nubians (Davies 1943: plate XIX). (Ebony and ivory were similarly traded together by Rhodians to merchants of Tyre; see Ezekiel 27:18.) Was ebony the wood called hbny by the ancient Egyptians? The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (1962) identifies it as “the highly prized core wood of the tree Diospyros ebenum Konig, imported from South India and Ceylon (and perhaps Ethiopia)” and points out its value to Egyptians, Phoenicians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans as inlay with ivory. Because African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon), the wood from a tree that grows in tropical Africa, was used for furniture found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb, A. Lucas (1962: 435) believed it to be that which the Egyptians called ebony, and not the tree growing in India and Sri Lanka that we call ebony today.

The Ulu Burun ship carried logs of a very dark wood resembling ebony. In addition, the hilt of a Canaanite sword on board was inlaid with ivory and this same dark wood. In both cases it was identified, by Donna Christensen of the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory, as African blackwood. Lucas was almost certainly right. Once more, cargo from Ulu Burun has provided primary evidence for an exact identification of a raw material.

Drawings in the Tomb of Rekhmi-rē˒ also depict chiefs from the Land of Retnu (North Syria) bearing as tribute copper ingots, elephant tusks, spindle bottles, and Canaanite amphoras (Davies 1943: plates XXIIXXIII)—all items found in the Ulu Burun cargo. Similar items are shown in a painting of the royal storeroom, where the contents of some of the amphoras are identified by means of hieroglyphs. The inscription on one indicates that it contains a material called sntr (Davies 1943: plate XLVIII).

Sntr, which also appears in Egyptian texts, has been translated by Victor Loret (1949) as terebinth resin, the resin of the Pistacia terebinthus var. Atlantica tree. If this interpretation is correct, we may glean from some of the texts that tons of terebinth resin were imported from the Syro-Palestinian coast to Egypt for ritual fumigation.

During the excavation of the Ulu Burun ship we were puzzled by nearly a hundred Canaanite amphoras that had been filled with some type of resin. Cheryl Haldane guessed that this was terebinth resin because of her identification of Pistacia leaves in the amphoras, but identification of the actual resin was made by John Mills of the National Gallery in London, with refinements by the Hairfields of Mary Baldwin College (Hairfield and Hairfield 1990). The estimated ton of Ulu Burun resin, then, supports Victor Loret’s identification of the Egyptian word sntr as terebinth resin, and Loret’s study, in turn, provides another clue to the intended route of our wrecked ship and the nature of her cargo.

Egyptian tomb paintings further show us the various forms copper ingots took and that copper ingots of the kinds found at Ulu Burun were usually associated with Syrian merchants (Bass 1967: 62–67). Nautical archaeology, in turn, can solve puzzles posed by the same paintings. In one, for example, white ingots are stacked near copper ingots of the same shape (Davies 1943: plate XVIII). Scholars have wondered if the white ingots were lead, silver, electrum, or tin (Bass 1967: 64). The Ulu Burun ship has yielded the earliest known tin ingots, which were shaped just like contemporary copper ingots, suggesting strongly that the royal Egyptian storeroom simply held copper and tin ingots, the two ingredients necessary for making a bronze age.

Copper ingots, painted red or pink, are depicted above scenes of bronze-workers in several tomb paintings (Bass 1967: 65). In another painting of bronze-working, two unique red objects are painted above the bronze-workers (Davies 1943: plate LII). Although N. de G. Davies identified these red objects as a pair of newly cast bronze doors, he questioned their small size and pointed out that solid bronze doors hardly seemed reasonable (1943: 53). New discoveries at Ulu Burun might solve the problem. We have recently found on the wreck a new type of copper ingot that has two handles instead of the usual four; these ingots resemble the theorized bronze doors referred to above. Although we are far from certain, it is possible that these “doors” are simply ingots of the new type.*

Until we have raised and restored whatever of the hull survives at Ulu Burun, we must suppose that the ship looked something like those in the Syrian merchant fleet painted in the fourteenth-century Tomb of Kenamun at Thebes (Davies and Faulkner 1947). The wreck, in turn, tells us something about the painting that we might not have guessed. On the decks of the Syrian ships are large storage jars that one might have assumed held fresh water. We have reamed from the Ulu Burun ship, however, that this was not necessarily the case: At least two of the half-dozen such jars on the wreck held stacks of unused Cypriot export pottery (Bass 1987: 710–11), and another held whole pomegranates. The large jars, then, were the shipping barrels of the Bronze Age.


We have presented a sample of what students of the ancient Near East can learn from a single shipwreck. Other Late Bronze Age wrecks lie along the coast of Israel (Wachsmann and Raveh 1984; Galili, Shmueli, and Artzy 1986). None found so far have been as well preserved as those at Cape Gelidonya or Ulu Burun, but surely they exist in the Levant: When I last visited Lebanon, in 1984, it seemed that the walls of almost every coffee house and restaurant were decorated with Canaanite and Phoenician amphoras that had been pulled from the sea.

(1990). Biblical Archaeologist, 53.


Inscriptions 3

#41 Gezer Calendar

The Gezer calendar, 10th century B.C., discovered in 1908 by Irish archaeologist R. A. S. Macalister. The verse inscribed on soft limestone is a ditty which lists the months by their agricultural tasks. It seems to have been a schoolchild’s exercise tablet. Before the discovery of the Izbet Sartah sherd the Gezer calendar was considered the oldest Hebrew inscription of any length(Shanks, H. (Ed.). (1978). BAR 04:03 (Sep/Oct 1978).

The tablet bearing the Gezer Calendar measures 10.77 × 6.99 × 1.59 centimeters. It is composed of soft limestone, and its right-hand corner is missing. Both the front and back of the tablet show signs of repeated use, with erasure and new writing. This led McCarter and Dobbs-Allsopp to conclude that the tablet was a practice tablet and that the text was likely a standard formulaic inscription used in scribal training (McCarter, “The Gezer Calendar,” 2:222; Dobbs-Allsopp, Hebrew Inscriptions, 156–7). Albright argues that the text “is written in verse and seems to have been a kind of mnemonic ditty for children” (Albright, “The Gezer Calendar,” 16–26).

The text describes agricultural activities that begin in the fall and occur over a 12-month period. It is written on seven lines, which have been translated below and arranged for clarity:(Babcock, B. C. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Gezer Calendar. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.)

#42 Uriah Epitaph from Khirbet el-Qom

It is the epitaph of a man named Uriah, who invokes the blessing of the Israelite God Yahweh on himself, though details of his words are obscured by a jumble of scratches and grooves that litter the surface of the stone. The text exhibits the language and orthography (spelling conventions) of the southern or Judahite dialect of Hebrew in the pre-exilic period. Both the script and the associated pottery are typical of the region in the latter part of the eighth century B.C. (Shanks, H. (Ed.). (1996). BAR 22:02 (March/April 1996).

#43 Stonecutter’s inscription from Khirbet el-Qom

I had just assigned the Uriah epitaph to a graduate seminar when I learned of the tomb inscription published in the Deutsch and Heltzer book. I instantly recognized the script and even the soft Senonian chalk that Dever says is characteristic of the area around Khirbet el-Kom.† This new inscription must be from el-Kom or its immediate vicinity—in short, an el-Kom inscription that Dever had not been able to rescue from the antiquities market.†

The new inscription has two lines. Deutsch and Heltzer read the inscription as follows: “Bless your stonecutter(s)! In this will rest the elders. Making the slight, but significant, required changes, the inscription can more accurately be translated as follows: “Blessed be your stonecutter! May he lay old people to rest here!”

The Hebrew word rendered “stonecutter” (ḥṣb) is the same word used in the famous Siloam inscription to refer to the workers who cut the tunnel in the rock beneath the city of Jerusalem.* Here the word must refer to the man who has hewn the burial chambers out of the limestone and otherwise shaped the cave for its use as a tomb. Perhaps he is called “your stonecutter” because he assumed that any reader of the inscription would be a citizen of the region and therefore a beneficiary of the craftsman’s work (“the man who cuts [a tomb] for you”). (Shanks, H. (Ed.). (1996). BAR 22:02 (March/April 1996).

#44 Siloam Tunnel Inscription

King Hezekiah of Judah ruled from 721 to 686 BC, and, fearing a siege by the Assyrian Sennacherib, he preserved Jerusalem’s water supply by having a tunnel cut through 534 m (1750 ft) of solid rock from the Gihon Spring to the Pool of Siloam inside the city walls (2 Kgs 20; 2 Chr 32). At the Siloam end of the tunnel, an inscription, presently in the archaeological museum at Istanbul, celebrates this remarkable accomplishment. The tunnel is probably the only Biblical site that has not changed its appearance in 2, 700 years.(2004). Bible and Spade (2004), 17(3), 92.

Hezekiah’s Tunnel (also called the Siloam Tunnel, which is not to be confused with the Siloam Channel) connects the Gihon Spring to what is known today as the Pool of Siloam. It is believed Hezekiah built it to bring water within the city walls. The Siloam Channel would take water from the Gihon—the principal source of water for ancient Jerusalem—southward along the eastern slope of the city, providing irrigation for the Kidron Valley before reaching its reservoir. However, this channel lay outside the city walls and would be vulnerable during a time of war. Therefore, under threat of Assyrian invasion led by Sennacherib in 701 BC (2 Kgs 18:13), Hezekiah made a tunnel to divert water into the city. The Siloam Inscription memorializes the amazing feat of the tunnel’s construction, suggesting two teams of diggers started at opposite ends and met each other in the middle.

The Siloam Inscription was discovered in 1880. The inscription is distinct from the epigraphic style of the ancient Near East from ninth to seventh century BC in that it does not include a name of a king or deity (Levi della Vida, “The Shiloah Inscription Reconsidered,” 163). The inscription may have been made by a foreman or one of the workers themselves.

The Siloam Inscription, which is now found in the Museum of the Ancient Orient in Istanbul, consists of six lines written in paleo-Hebrew script. It was chiseled onto a smooth, prepared surface of which the top portion is bare. Because of this, it is likely that either half of the inscription is missing or that the upper half was planned to depict a relief of a worker (Sasson, “Siloam Tunnel Inscription,” 111).

W. F. Albright’s translation of the inscription reads as follows (from ANET, 321):

“[… when] (the tunnel) was driven through. And this was the way in which it was cut through:—While […] (were) still […] axe(s), each man toward his fellow, and while there were still three cubits to be cut through, [there was heard] the voice of a man calling to his fellow, for there was an overlap in the rock on the right [and on the left]. And when the tunnel was driven through, the quarrymen hewed (the rock), each man toward his fellow, axe against axe; and the water flowed from the spring toward the reservoir for 1,200 cubits, and the height of the rock above the head(s) of the quarrymen was 100 cubits.”

Due to its content and paleography, the inscription is traditionally dated to the reign of Hezekiah in the late eighth century (ca. 700 BC). In 1996, John Rogerson and Philip Davies argued for a later date for the inscription and tunnel, suggesting they were created in the second century BC (Rogerson and Davies, “Was the Siloam Tunnel Built by Hezekiah?”). Hackett and others strongly rebuffed their paleographic and linguistic analysis (Hackett et al., “Defusing Pseudo-Scholarship“; see also Norin, “Age of the Siloam Inscription,” 37–48). In 2003, radiometric dating placed the tunnel’s construction at approximately 700 BC. Based on these findings, Frumkin, Shimron, and Rosenbaum comment, “The three independent lines of evidence—radiometric dating, paleography, and the historical record—all converge on about 700 BC, rendering the Siloam Tunnel the best-dated Iron-Age biblical structure thus far known” (Frumkin, Shimron, and Rosenbaum, “Radiometric Dating of the Siloam Tunnel, Jerusalem,” 169–71).(Pang, J. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Siloam Inscription. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.)

#45 Royal Steward Inscription

This well-known tomb from Silwan is shown in the photo above as it appears today and as drawn by the French excavator Clermont-Ganneau in 1874, when it was first studied. The tomb contains a main chamber (entered through the doorway at left) and a secondary chamber to the right. Nahman Avigad suggested that this tomb, too, had originally been topped by a pyramid.

Clermont-Ganneau discovered two inscriptions, a longer one over the entrance and a shorter one to the right of the entrance. In order to save the inscriptions, Clermont-Ganneau had them cut out of the facade, leaving behind the two wide depressions seen today. The inscriptions are today in the British Museum.

Resisting decipherment for nearly 80 years, the longer of the Royal Steward inscriptions is now known to read: “This is [the sepulchre of … ]yahu who is over the house. There is no silver and no gold here/but [his bones] and the bones of his amah with him. Cursed be the man/who will open this!”

The term “who is over the house” is a title meaning royal steward, the most important functionary in the royal household. Amah may be a term for a slave-wife or it may be a title akin to “Lady.” Scholars believe the tomb had been built for Shebnayahu, the royal steward excoriated in Isaiah 22:15–17: “Go in to see that steward, that Shebna [a shortened form of Shebnayahu], in charge of the palace … O you who have hewn your tomb on high; O you who have hollowed out for yourself an abode in the cliff! The Lord is about to shake you.”(Shanks, H. (Ed.). (1994). BAR 20:03 (May/June 1994).

#46 Silver Scrolls

Dr. Gabriel Barkay conducted three seasons of excavations on the slope of the Valley of Ben-Hinnom, Just north of St. Andrew’s Church in south Jerusalem, between the years 1975 and 1980. During these years he uncovered a large number of ancient tombs from several historical periods. Most of them had been robbed or disturbed long ago. In 1979 he discovered in the course of his work one unspoiled tomb of pre-exilic times (No. 25). This was a truly remarkable find, since tombs of the period of the Hebrew kings have rarely survived without having been entered and robbed of their contents long ago.

This tomb, which from the nature of its contents can be dated to the end of the seventh and the beginning of the sixth centuries BC, (the time of the prophet Jeremiah), was a large family burial place. It contained the skeletal remains of 95 individuals and a repository of about a thousand objects. Among them were 263 complete pottery vessels, 101 pieces of Jewelry, of which six were of gold and 95 of silver, also many carved objects of bone and ivory, 41 arrowheads of iron and bronze, and one small colored glass vessel, an amphoriskos.

However, the most sensational finds were two tiny silver scrolls tightly rolled up. One was about one inch long and less than half an inch thick, the other

only half an inch long and a fifth of an inch thick. The excavators assumed that these scrolls had served as amulets and contained inscriptions. For this reason, they were anxious to see them unrolled.

Because of the difficulties involved in unrolling such extremely thin 2,500 year old scrolls of corroded silver sheets, it was thought best to send them to the University of Leeds in Britain, where some of the most experienced restorers of ancient artifacts and metal experts were available for such delicate work. However, the British experts felt that the danger of destroying the scrolls in the process of unrolling was too great to attempt this work. Therefore they declined to attempt the unrolling and returned the scrolls to Israel. The same disappointment was experienced when the scrolls were sent to Germany for unrolling.

The result was that the Israeli technicians in the laboratories of the Israel Museum were forced to attempt to do the job themselves. After many difficulties they developed a special method that enabled them to unroll the two tiny silver sheets with success. After the scrolls had been unrolled and cleaned, they confirmed the expectations of the excavators — they did indeed contain written texts!

And what were the contents of the texts? It was the priestly benediction found in the Scriptures, in Numbers 6:24–26: “May Yahweh bless you, and keep you; may Yahweh let his face shine upon you and give you peacel

These were the earliest inscriptions ever found in Jerusalem that contain the name of Israel’s God, Yahweh, and the earliest copies of a Bible text in existence. These few verses from one of the books of the Pentateuch predate the earliest Biblical copies of the Dead Sea Scrolls by 400 years and bring us back to the period that preceded the Babylonian exile. This find certainly refutes those scholars who claim that the books of Moses had not been reduced to writing until the Babylonian Captivity or later. For here we find a small portion of the flve books of Moses literally quoted, well before the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the deportation of the citizens of the Kingdom of Judah to Babylonia.

The exhibition of these unrolled tiny scrolls in the Israel Museum – one under a large magnifying glass – gives all visitors to that fine institution a possibility to view these important witnesses of the existence of a part of God’s Word in the seventh-sixth centuries BC(1987). Bible and Spade (1987), 0.

#47 Votive Inscription

Definitely Dan. Professor Biran’s 1976 discovery of this 6-by-10-inch limestone tablet confirmed the identity of the site he was digging. The bilingual inscription in Greek (top three lines) and Aramaic (bottom line) refers to a person named Zoilos who made a vow to the “god who is in Dan,” or, in an alternative reading, to the “god of the Danites.” Found in Tel Dan’s sacred area, this votive inscription dates to the late third or early second centuries B.C. based on the style of the scripts. (Shanks, H. (Ed.). (1994). BAR 20:02 (March/April 1994).

#48 Balustrade Inscription

Gentiles: Keep out. Found in 1935 in Jerusalem’s Old City, this fragmentary limestone slab was once part of a balustrade that surrounded the inner courts of Herod’s Temple. The slab bore a Greek inscription warning Gentiles not to enter, since the inner courts were reserved exclusively for Jews. The full text of the inscription read: “No foreigner may enter within the railing and enclosure that surround the Temple. Anyone apprehended shall have himself to blame for his consequent death!” (The text was reconstructed from a more complete copy now in the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul.) Obviously, the authorities who posted the sign in the Temple expected Gentile visitors to be able to read it.

Though stone was the preferred material for official inscriptions in the ancient world, it was too heavy and expensive for everyday use. Far cheaper and more convenient were pottery sherds, which could be picked up for free anywhere, scribbled on and discarded. If they are inscribed, pottery sherds are called ostraca (singular: ostracon). (Shanks, H. (Ed.). (2003). BAR 29:04 (July/Aug 2003).

#49 Paleo-Hebrew Abba Inscription

During the course of continuing construction work at Giv’at ha-Mivtar in the autumn of 1971, another tomb-cave was found. Inside the tomb, opposite the entrance, a small chamber had been cut out of the rock for the body. The chamber was empty, but above the chamber was a very unusual inscription.

The inscription is written in old Hebrew script, but the language is Aramaic. E. S. Rosenthal of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who first translated the inscription, dated it to the first century A.D. His translation is as follows:

“I, Abba, son of the priest Eleazar, son of Aaron the Great, I Abba, the oppressed, the pursued, who was born in Jerusalem and went to exile into Babylonia and carried up (for interment) MTTY son of YHWD and I buried him in the cave which I purchased by the writ.”

Abba was evidently of priestly lineage. For some reason, unknown to us, he brought MTTY from Babylonia to Jerusalem to be buried. But the interesting thing about the inscription is that Abba placed MTTY in a newly purchased cave.(1974). Bible and Spade (1974), 3(2), 48.

#50 Uzziah Plaque

Down in Judah, King Uzziah ruled from 792–740 BC, a contemporary of Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah. Like Solomon, he began well and ended badly. In 2 Chronicles 26, his sin is related which resulted in his being struck with leprosy later in life, and when he died, he was interred in a “field of burial that belonged to the kings.” His stone burial-plaque has been discovered on the Mount of Olives, and it reads: “Here, the bones of Uzziah, King of Judah, were brought. Do not open.”(2004). Bible and Spade (2004), 17(3), 92.

“Hither were brought/The bones of Uzziah/King of Judah./Do not open!” This funerary inscription is the only known ancient artifact that contains the name of a king of Judah. It was found over fifty years ago in the Russian Orthodox monastery on the Mount of Olives and there is nothing known of its original provenance other than it was discovered at the end of the nineteenth century. This Aramaic inscription of Uzziah, who is described as a leper king in 2 Chronicles 26:23, dates between the first century BCE and the first century CE rather than to the time of Uzziah (the eighth century BCE). Uzziah’s remains may have been removed from their original grave during the expansion of Jerusalem at the end of the Hasmonean period or during the reign of Herod the Great. This stone plaque, which is approximately 35 centimeters square and 6 centimeters thick, probably was used to seal the new burial niche or was set in the wall above the niche. (IMJ 68.56.32) (1986). Biblical Archaeologist, 49.

#51 Pontius Pilate Inscription

Antonio Frova discovered the inscription in 1961 on a dedicatory stone at Caesarea Maritima, an ancient city built by Herod the Great around 25–13 BC. The inscription reads, “Tiberius Pontius Pilate Prefect of Judea.” Pontius Pilate was appointed as the Roman governor of Judaea in AD 26 by Emperor Tiberius, and suspended in AD 37 by Vitellius, the governor of Syria, after massacring Samaritans at Mount Gerizim. Jesus was crucified during Pilate’s governance (Matt 27:2). The inscription not only confirms the historicity of Pilate, it clarifies the title he bore as governor (Schoville, “Archaeological Discoveries”).(Meyer, A. R. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Palestine, Archaeology of. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.)

An inscription found at Caesarea in the 1950s is the only archaeological confirmation of Pontius Pilate’s existence. Though the left half is obscured, all but the first word can be deciphered: “ … the Tiberium, which Pontius Pilate, the Prefect of Judea, gave [and] dedicated.” It was discovered in secondary use as part of a third-century staircase. (Shanks, H. (Ed.). (2004). BAR 30:05 (Sep/Oct 2004).

#52 Synagogue Inscription from Theodotus

One of the most significant inscriptions ever found in Jerusalem, the Theodotos Inscription, is prominently displayed in the Rockefeller Museum, where Shuka has his office. It is a stone plaque that once hung in a Jerusalem synagogue before the Roman destruction in 70 A.D. In beautifully carved Greek letters, it commemorates Theodotos as archisynagogos (synagogue leader) and priest. It describes the facilities of the synagogue as a place for reading the Law and teaching the commandments. The synagogue also had an adjoining hostel with plumbing facilities for those coming from abroad. (Some scholars have even suggested that this is the Synagogue of the Freedman, referred to in Acts 6.) The inscription recites the synagogue’s history for at least two earlier generations. (Shanks, H. (Ed.). (2003). BAR 29:04 (July/Aug 2003).

#53 Roster of God fearers from Aphrodisias

It came as no surprise that the text was in Greek: Greek was the official, and usually the spoken, language of the cities of the whole eastern half of the Roman empire. Nor was it surprising that the text was inscribed on marble: In this quarry town, marble was almost as freely used for public inscriptions as posters would be today. Erim’s dig had already uncovered a whole catalogue of public messages inscribed on stone.† What made this inscription special was that it was installed by the Jewish community of Aphrodisias. Before this, scholars hadn’t even known there was a Jewish community at Aphrodisias. Moreover, this was the longest Jewish inscription ever recovered from the Classical world.

The inscription seems to date to the early third century, about 210 A.D. It is a list of donors—126 of them preserved, perhaps a few more missing. They had contributed to a fund for the construction of a building for community use—the same kind of list that might be found on the wall of a modern synagogue.

The inscription has been dated, read and transcribed by the expedition’s epigrapher, Joyce Reynolds of Newnham College, Cambridge University. The first eight lines introduce the list. Here is a more-or-less literal translation of the text, which is full of scholarly booby traps:

“God [theos] our help [illegible word] dish. The members, listed below, of the board of ten [or “of the association”] of the lovers of learning, also known as those who continually praise [God], have built, at their own expense, for the alleviation of suffering [or “of grief”] in the community, this memorial building [or “this tomb”]. (Shanks, H. (Ed.). (1986). BAR 12:05 (Sep/Oct 1986).

#54 Isaiah Inscription

Archaeologists excavating the Western Wall of the temple in Jerusalem found this stone, bearing a portion of Isaiah 66:14. Carved during the fourth century A.D., the inscription encouraged the Jews with Isaiah’s prophetic words: “And when ye see this, your heart shall rejoice, and your bones shall flourish like an herb …” Less than 32 km. (20 mi.) to the southeast is the barren territory of the Dead Sea.(Packer, J. I., Tenney, M. C., & White, W., Jr. (1997). Nelson’s illustrated manners and customs of the Bible (p. 649). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson).

#55 En Gedi Synagogue Inscription

This is a 9.5 x 6.9 rectangle subdivided by black lines into four panels. The top two panels are in Hebrew and the bottom two in Aramaic. Inside the top panel are the names of the antediluvian fathers from Adam to the sons of Noah as given in 1 Chron. 1:1-4.

The beginning of the second panel has the names of the zodiac…as well as the names of the Jewish months… The third panel invokes the names of the patriarchs while the fourth memorializes the benefactors of the synagogue (Biblical Inscriptions Bas CD)

#56 Rehob Synagogue Inscription

A 14 x 9 foot inscription containing 29 lines of script on religious and agriculture laws and regulations including what to do on the Sabbath. (Ancient Inscriptions BAS CD)

#57 Jericho Synagogue Inscription

“Peace upon Israel” reads the Hebrew inscription at the bottom of this mosaic from the seventh-century A.D. synagogue at Jericho. The mosaic features three of the most popular symbols in synagogue decoration: At center stands a seven-branched candelabrum, or menorah; a palm branch appears at lower left, a ram’s horn appears at lower right. (Shanks, H. (Ed.). (1994). BAR 20:02 (March/April 1994).

#58 Tablet From Herod’s Temple

Greek inscription warning ‘foreigners’ (gentiles) from encroaching on the hallowed area of the Temple Mount, carved in a limestone ashlar. This complete inscription is in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. Translated, it reads: “No foreigner is to enter within the forecourt and the balustrade around the Sanctuary. Whoever is caught will have himself to blame for his subsequent death”(Segal 1989:79). Another similar, but fragmentary, inscribed block is displayed in the Palestine Archaeological Museum (Rockefeller Museum) in Jerusalem. These belonged to a series of warning inscriptions in Greek and Latin that were fixed to the balustrade (soreg) marking the boundary of the sacred precinct of the Temple Mount. In this connection, it should be noted that similar prohibitions applied within Greek temples (Jacobson, D. M. (2001). The Oldest Datable Chambers on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Biblical Archaeologist: Volume 57 1-4, (electronic ed.), 158.)


Inscriptions 2

#21 Beth-shan Stele of Ramesse II

An instructive example of this sort of thing was a curious misunderstanding that for long clung to the Philadelphia expedition’s celebrated discovery of the Stele of Rameses II at Beth-shan shortly after the end of World War I—a misunderstanding all the more strange because those responsible for it were neither sensation-mongers nor mere popularizers, but first-rate and conscientious scholars.

Let us start with the unvarnished truth about the inscription on this Stele. It merely stated that “the chieftains of the Rethenu (Palestinians) and of the Aamu and Shashu (Asiatics) were defeated by Rameses II (c. 1301–1234 B.C.) and made obeisance to him in his beautiful fortress of Raamses.” (2001). Biblical Archaeologist 1-4, 9(electronic ed.).

A similar stir was initially created by the stele of Ramses II, when it was thought to refer to Asiatics or ‘Apiru building the city of Ramses in the Delta, i.e., the enslaved Hebrews of Exodus 1:11. The passage (lines 9f.) merely says however, that after defeating his enemies, they (and presumably every one else as well) came to the city of Ramses and bowed down. Ramses also appears on a cylinder seal (found in Level V) along with the god Set. (2001). Biblical Archaeologist 1-4, 30(electronic ed.).

#22 400 year Stele

The Four-Hundred-Year Stele. During the early tenth century B.C.E., an Egyptian pharaoh of the XXIst Dynasty (c. 1075–948 B.C.E.), perhaps Solomon’s father in-law, transferred the capital from Ramses (formerly Avaris) to Tanis. Among the monuments moved in the process was this stele of Ramesses II, which records the inauguration of the cult of the Hyksos god Seth 400 years earlier. Baruch Halpern suggests that this stele, moved at a time when relations between Solomon’s court and the Egyptian court were good and when parts of the Bible were being composed in Jerusalem, is responsible for the biblical notion that 400 years separated Joseph (or the Hyksos) and the pharaoh who pressed the Israelites into building the capital city Ramses (Shanks, H. (Ed.). (2004). BAS The Rise of Ancient Israel. Biblical Archaeology Society).

#23 The Tale of Two Brothers

Many interesting stories come from this period of Egyptian history. “The Tale of Two Brothers” describes how the wife of one brother lied about the sexual advances of the other brother. This story is similar to the false accusation of Potiphar’s wife against Joseph. Myths about the struggles between the gods Horus and Seth and the “Wisdom of Amenemopet,” which are similar to Proverbs 22:17–24:22, are a few of the important literary compositions from Egypt during these years.(Youngblood, R. F., Bruce, F. F., & Harrison, R. K., Thomas Nelson Publishers (Eds.). (1995). In Nelson’s new illustrated Bible dictionary. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.)

In the Tale of Two Brothers, a woman attempts to seduce her husband’s younger brother, but he resists her advances. In revenge, the woman tells her husband that his brother tried to rape her, so the man sets out to kill his younger brother. Learning the truth from his younger brother, the man returns home, kills his wife, and throws her body to the dogs (COS 1:40). In this story, the woman is only guilty of intent to commit adultery, but she still suffers the penalty of death(Raccah, W., & Mangum, D. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Adultery in the Ancient Near East. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press).

The story of Joseph (Gen 37) and the Egyptian Tale of Two Brothers share obvious similarities. For example:

•      In both stories, a married woman attempts to seduce a younger man whose virtue is apparent.

•      When propositioned, each man flees, only to be maligned and accused of a crime he did not commit.

•      After exile or imprisonment, the innocence of each man is recognized.

•      Both go on to rise in power and influence.

The Egyptian tale includes a number of fantastic details absent from the biblical text of the Joseph narrative, including sentient livestock and reincarnation.

Some scholars see the biblical story as dependent on the Egyptian tale (Westermann, Genesis, 28). Others see them as having been told in similar fashion because they originated in a similar cultural milieu (McKenzie and Kaltner, Old Testament, 104−05). Both stories share details of the “spurned wife motif” that may be found elsewhere in Egyptian and Greek literature (Redford, 91–93). The vast majority of the story bears no similarity to the story of Joseph (Hoffmeier, 81).

Despite the inclusion of supernatural elements, some have suggested that The Tale of Two Brothers’ origins lie in an actual historical setting, namely, a dispute concerning the Egyptian throne (Hollis, 102). This is complicated by the fact that both brothers in the tale have names connected to Egyptian deities: Anubis is the Egyptian god of mummification, while Bata is a minor deity recognized in Upper Egypt.(Bryant, D. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Two Brothers, Tale of. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.)

#24 Merneptah Stele

A 2.1 m (7 ft) slab engraved with hieroglyphics, also called the “Israel Stele,” boasts of the Egyptian pharaoh’s conquest of Libyans and peoples in Palestine, including the Israelites: “Israel—his seed is not.” This is the earliest reference to Israel in non-Biblical sources, and demonstrates that, as of ca. 1230 BC, the Hebrews were already living in the Promised Land.(2004). Bible and Spade (2004), 17(3), 89.

A large black granite monument with an inscription commemorating a military campaign of Pharaoh Merneptah around 1209 BC. The stele is significant because it contains the earliest known extrabiblical reference to a people called “Israel.”

Biblical Relevance

Merneptah’s mention of Israel as a distinct socioethnic group in Canaan suggests that by 1209 BC (around the time of the biblical judges), they were a military force whose defeat was worth memorializing in a victory stele. While the Bible does not mention Pharaoh Merneptah or his campaign, the Merneptah Stele provides an external chronological anchor for building a timeline of Israelite history.

Discovery and Description

In 1896 Sir W. M. Flinders Petrie, an English Egyptologist, discovered the stele while excavating the funerary temple of Pharaoh Merneptah at Thebes (Robinson, Bearing of Archaeology, 49). The stele is now on display at the Cairo Museum. A fragmentary copy is at the Karnak Temple.

The stele is 10 feet, 3 inches tall; 5 feet, 3 inches wide; and 14 inches thick, with inscriptions on both sides. One side describes the campaign of Pharaoh Merneptah in 28 lines that contain around 3,000 hieroglyphics (Robinson, Bearing of Archaeology, 50).

More than a century before Merneptah, the stele was originally set up by Amenhotep III with a long inscription on one side (Williams, “The ‘Israel Stele,’ ” 137). In the fifth year of Merneptah’s reign, around 1209 BC, he used the other side of the stele to write a poetic hymn that commemorates his military campaign against the Libyans (Hoffmeier, “The (Israel) Stela,” 41). Yurco provides an overview of the political climate of the time and situates Merneptah’s military campaign in the contexts of Egypt’s struggle to maintain and defend its realms and international relations (Yurco, “Merenptah’s Canaanite Campaign”). According to the stele, this campaign was prompted when “The god Ptah appeared in a dream to Merneptah of the XIX dynasty, and encouraged him to attack the Libyans” (Robinson, Bearing of Archaeology, 32). The stele itself depicts Amon-Re giving Merneptah a sword for his divinely sanctioned military campaign (Pritchard, ANET, 376).(Locatell, C. S. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Merneptah Stele. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press).

#25 Karnak

Among the remains at Karnak—the complex of religious buildings in the northeastern corner of modern-day Luxor—Frith spotted this fallen obelisk lying atop a pile of rubble. The main temple at Karnak, erected during the New Kingdom period (1550–1069 B.C.), was dedicated to the god Amun-Ra. In 667 B.C., the temple and Karnak itself were destroyed by the Assyrians led by King Ashurbanipal. When Frith arrived at the site 2,500 years later, little had changed—except that Karnak’s artifacts were being looted and shipped off to museums a continent away. Whether an Egyptian pasha or a European antiquities dealer, the plunderer was the subject of Frith’s most vitriolic prose (Shanks, H. (Ed.). (2004). Archaeology Odyssey 01:03.)

Karnak, the great temple of the god Amun-Re in Thebes, Egypt, appears here in the distance. Under construction for more than 2,000 years, the temple of Karnak is viewed through the hypostyle hall of the Akh-menu temple of Pharaoh Tuthmosis III (1504–1450 B.C.E.) in the foreground. An obelisk of Queen Hatshepsut, located beyond the Karnak sanctuary, is visible on a line with the center of the temple doorway. Flanking the doorway are engaged statues of Tuthmosis III.

According to author Frank J. Yurco, a wall adjoining Karnak’s great Hypostyle Hall exhibits reliefs that illustrate the Canaanite campaign of Merenptah, pharaoh of Egypt from 1212 to 1202 B.C.E. Among the vivid portrayals is the oldest known depiction of Israelites, a discovery that may aid in solving the mystery of their origin.(Shanks, H. (Ed.). (1990). BAR 16:05 (Sep/Oct 1990).

Waset was a small village on the Nile’s east bank, where the alluvial plain broadened out to about 9 mi. After the collapse of Egypt’s Old Kingdom (ca. 2687–2190 BC), it grew in size and influence until becoming the capital of reunited Egypt at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2060–1700 BC). It is better known in history by its ancient Greek name, Thebes. Long after the city declined, during the early Islamic period, the visible ruins of the Luxor Temple became known in Arabic as Al Uqsur (“The Palaces”). That name has come to us in its shortened version and is applied to the entire city—Luxor. The Karnak Temple complex, Egypt’s most famous temple, is within the city limits of modern Luxor. (2004). Bible and Spade (2004), 17(4), 97.

The temple was actually a complex, with multiple temples to a variety of Theban gods. The center of the complex was the Amun (and later Amun-re) Temple. It was the largest temple precinct and possibly the most important in ancient Egypt. While originally begun during the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2060–1700 BC), it became a national building project during the New Kingdom (ca. 1570–1070 BC) and stayed under continual construction for some 1500 years, with subsequent Pharaohs adding on with pylons, shrines, obelisks and statues. Yet, none of these architectural features or decorations were designed for the masses to see and be impressed or educated by. Instead they were specifically designed to impress Amun (and possibly the powerful Amun priesthood, as well). Beyond the Amun Temple, the Karnak complex included a temple to Ptah (the creator god and patron of Memphis), a temple to Montu (the local war god) and a temple to Mut (Amun’s wife). Unlike most temples, which are built along a single axis, the Karnak Temple was built along two different axes, in all four directions of the compass.(2004). Bible and Spade (2004), 17(4), 97.

#26 Sea Peoples Inscription

Manacled Philistine prisoners. In this wall relief from Ramesses III’s mortuary palace at Medinet Habu, Philistines, whom Rameses has just defeated, are shown being led into captivity. This relief clearly depicts the distinctive Philistine dress—a short paneled kilt with wide hem and tassels. The battle headdress is also a Philistine trademark. Since these prisoners have been stripped of their armor, we do not see the ribbed corselets visible in the naval battle reliefs.

The hieroglyphic inscription over the prisoners’ heads reads: “The vanquished Peleset [Philistines] say: ‘Give us the breath of our nostrils, O King, Son of Amon.’” Other inscriptions at Medinet Habu relate that Ramesses III defeated the Sea People invaders in the eighth year of his reign, c. 1190 B.C. “Those who entered the river mouths were like birds ensnared in the net.” Ramesses eventually allowed the Sea Peoples, including the Philistines, to settle on the southern coastal plain of Palestine. (Shanks, H. (Ed.). (1982). BAR 08:04 (July/Aug 1982).)

The Philistines who regularly oppose the Israelites in the biblical narratives are believed to have been part of the so-called “Sea Peoples“—a confederacy of seafaring raiders who invaded the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Bronze Age (around 1200 BC). The biblical Philistines have been identified with the “Peleset” of Egyptian inscriptions, a group among the Sea Peoples with cultural elements from Aegean tradition (Dothan, The Philistines, 14; Yasur-Landau, Philistines and Aegean Migration; Faust and Lev-Tov, “Constitution of Philistine Identity”; Killebrew and Lehmann, Philistines and other “Sea Peoples”; Middleton, “Telling Stories”). However, recent studies treat them more as a heterogeneous group than a single entity (Ben-Shlomo, “Cultural Diversity, Ethnicity, and Power”; Killebrew Biblical Peoples and Ethnicity, 197–245; Maeir et al., “Constitution and Transformation”) (Caiafa, L. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Tell Qasile. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.)

#27 Code of Hammruabi

A second-millennium law code developed during the reign of Hammurabi (king of Babylon). Contains 282 laws addressing various social issues and crimes. Divides legal decisions by social class (free men, middle class, and slave).


The Code of Hammurabi provides a glimpse into the society of the Old Babylonian period—a world like that of the patriarchs. Details in the code have provided information about the daily life of people during that time, including such details as the price of hiring a boat for a day (§ 275–277) and the cost of an early delivery of a jug of beer during harvest time (§ 111). The code’s sampling of legal situations has elaborated details contained in numerous other documents from this time. The legal material preserved on the code provides a source for comparison with the Bible’s legal material. While the Code of Hammurabi is hundreds of years older than the date ascribed to the final form of the Pentateuch, it is closer to its autograph than the legal corpus we find in the Bible (Eichler, “Examples of Restatement”; Fleishmann, “Legal Continuation and Reform”). The law code was not the first to be developed, as the Law Code of Lipit-Ishtar and other examples date to the third millennium (circa 2100 BC). Although it is not the earliest, the Code of Hammurabi is significantly longer and better written than prior law codes (Van Seters, Law Book, 95–96).

Over 50 partial copies of the text survive, suggesting the code was important to Babylonian culture and the Babylonian scribal tradition (Roth, “The Laws of Hammurabi,” 335). The best preserved and longest of the surviving examples of the text is written on a stele dated to circa 1760–1750 BC. This stele was commissioned by Hammurabi, probably after his 35th regnal year when he defeated Zimri-Lim, ruler of Mari—the last competition for rule over Mesopotamia. It is a single stone measuring 7 feet 4.5 inches tall by 2 feet 1.5 inches wide. The front and back of the stele is engraved with Akkadian cuneiform. It originally stood in Babylon and was later moved to Susa after a raid by the Elamites (the diorite stele is now in the Louvre).

The top third of the front face features a glyptic scene showing Hammurabi standing before the seated deity Shamash, god of the sun and justice. He is shown receiving the “rod and ring,” tools symbolizing divine authority with regard to correct judgment. This scene probably served as an comprehensible manifestation of the written material to the illiterate public. The stele was uncovered by French archaeologist de Morgan in 1901 at Susa (modern Shush, Iran).

It contains 282 laws covering a wide range of social areas(Bryan C. Babcock, J. H., & Strong, J. D. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Hammurabi, Code of. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press).

#28 Shabaka Stone

The Shabaka stone, a basalt slab covered in early hieroglyphics from the time of Pharaoh Shabaka (seventh century BC) with evidence of a much earlier origin, is one of the oldest cosmological texts ever discovered. It contains information on Memphite theology, including a brief mention of the creation of Atum by the word of Ptah (creator God). This theory argues that, since there is evidence for an Egyptian word-theology that arguably predates every other word-philosophy, the creation story of Gen 1 comes from an Egyptian rather than a Mesopotamian environment. Therefore, the use of logos in John’s Gospel originates in a Near Eastern (Egyptian, reflected in a Sumerian parallel, brought out in Hebrew style) thought-world (Albright, Stone Age, 146). One strength of this theory is that it eliminates the need to explain John’s connection with classical Greek philosophy. However, because the stone is a very early text with little evidence of being accepted outside of Egypt, this theory is often rejected.(Estes, D. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Logos. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press).

An Egyptian account of creation inscribed on the Shabaka Stone. The stone is dated to the reign of Shabaka, a pharaoh of the 25th Dynasty (ca. 700 BC), but the text is probably much older. Contains conceptual similarities to the account of creation in Genesis.


Memphite Theology draws on earlier Egyptian stories of creation and organizes them philosophically. In this theology, Ptah, the god of craftsmanship, is responsible for creation; he speaks thoughts into existence. Ptah becomes the primordial waters and ultimately pervades all of creation (Arnold, Encountering the Book of Genesis, 47).

This account also emphasizes the belief that thoughts are the source for everything—that the world was created with intelligence and sustained by intelligence (Breasted, Dawn of Conscience, 37). The Hebrew account of creation in Genesis contrasts this and other similar teachings of ancient Near Eastern cultures (Johnston, “Genesis 1,” 194).

Date, Authorship, and Purpose

The Memphite Theology comes from an inscription on a black stone bearing the name of the pharaoh Shabaka (700 BC) of the 25th Dynasty. Shabaka said he copied it from an inscription that “the ancestors had made, but was worm-eaten” (Pritchard, ANET, 4). The original inscription was likely written on papyrus. The terminology and textual organization used in the inscription, which dates the text to the First Dynasty (ca. 2500 BC), supports Shabaka’s claim (Frankfort, The Intellectual Adventures of Ancient Man, 55). Breasted proposed a date for the original text within the First Union before the First Dynasty, ca. 3400 BC (Breasted, The Dawn of Conscience, 31–32).

The Memphite Theology promotes the supremacy of Memphis, the city of the god Ptah, for political leadership. Breasted argues that the text was created by priests to give a theological premise for moving the Egyptian capital from Heliopolis to Memphis due to the triumphs of Menes, the founder of the First Dynasty (Breasted, Dawn of Conscience, 19).(Nierengarten, P. A. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Memphite Theology. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.)

#29 Ugaritic Abecedary

Fragment of Ugaritic alphabet tablet. During the first weeks of his excavation, Schaeffer discovered clay tablets written in a cuneiform alphabet. Not until after World War II, however, did he unearth the first of several abecedary (alphabet) tablets. A fragment of one of these alphabet tablets is pictured here. By comparing this photo to the chart of the Ugaritic alphabet, one can identify many of the letters on the tablet.(Shanks, H. (Ed.). (1983). BAR 09:05 (Sep/Oct 1983).

This abecedary (compare with photo of ram’s head statue) contains the Ugaritic characters in the traditional order of the alphabet that we still use; the Ugaritic signary is the oldest evidence we have for the order of the signs later used in Phoenician and Hebrew.

However, in the accompanying article, Barry Powell, following the earlier work of I.J. Gelb, argues that West Semitic scripts are not alphabets but simply refined syllabaries. To Powell, a true alphabet must have signs for phonemes—the smallest particles of sound. The West Semitic scripts, however, only had signs for consonants plus an implied vowel, leaving it to the reader to determine what vowels to supply. It was the Greeks, Powell argues, who in the eighth century B.C. developed the first true alphabet. Borrowing West Semitic characters, they assigned these signs to phonemes with separate and distinct signs for vowels as well as consonants. Powell suggests that one man invented the alphabet to record the hexameters of Homer’s epics, which until then had existed only as oral poetry. (Shanks, H. (Ed.). (2004). Archaeology Odyssey 01:01.)

#30 Keret Epic from Ugarit

Let us now look briefly at the Legend of Keret and see if there might be some relationship with the events occurring at the fall of Jericho.

It is the epic tale of a king who needs an heir to the throne. As Keret weeps in his chamber, El appears to him in a dream and gives him instructions to sacrifice, and then take an expedition to get his wife and, through her, have a son. First Keret provides a great feast for all the people. Then the expedition sets out in order: men of war first, the people following, then the trumpeters last. All are warned to keep quiet until the last day.

Two six-day intervals are recorded in the epic, with the climax on the seventh day in both periods. A tremendous noise is made at dawn on the seventh day, just before arriving at the city (Udum) of the future queen(1990). Bible and Spade (1990), 3(2), 55.

THE LEGEND OF KERET. This epic, written on four tablets in cuneiform alphabetic script, tells of the prosperous King Keret of Ugarit. The story says that Keret was distressed by the death of his wife and her failure to bear any heirs to the throne. The god El told him to demand the hand of the beautiful daughter of the king of Udum. Keret made the appropriate vows, besieged the capital of Udum, and won the king’s daughter. In time, he had sons and daughters of his own. Keret fell ill, but El intervened to restore his health.(Packer, J. I., Tenney, M. C., & White, W., Jr. (1997). Nelson’s illustrated manners and customs of the Bible (p. 130). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.)

#31 Ba’al Epic from Ugarit

The Baal Epic recounts how the storm god Baal displaced El as the chief deity of the Canaanite pantheon. The story involves Baal defeating Yam, the sea god (KTU 1.2, col. iv; see Wyatt, Religious Texts from Ugarit, 63–69; Smith and Parker, Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, 102–04). Later, Mot, the god of the Underworld, challenges Baal and boasts that just as Baal swallowed up Yam (KTU 1.2, col. iv., lines 25–27), so Mot will swallow up Baal. In this exchange, Mot refers to Baal’s defeat of Litan (or Leviathan), apparently equating Yam and Litan (KTU 1.5, col. i, lines 1–8; translation from Smith and Parker, Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, 141):

When you killed Litan, the Fleeing Serpent,

Annihilated the Twisty Serpent,

The Potentate with Seven Heads,

The heavens grew hot, they withered.

But let me tear you to pieces,

Let me eat flanks, innards, forearms.

Surely you will descend into Divine Mot’s throat,

Into the gullet of El’s Beloved, the Hero.

The description of Litan in the first lines of this tablet from the Baal Epic use almost the exact words as the description of Leviathan in Isa 27:1 (Ugaritic transcription based on Gordon, Ugaritic Textbook, “Text 67:I”).(Hamilton, D. M. with M. J. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Leviathan. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.)

#32 Sarcophagus of Ahiram, King of Byblos

The sarcophagus of Ahiram, king of Byblos (c. 1000 BCE) with the oldest continuous and readable Phoenician inscription of any substantial length incised around the edge of the lid. Photograph by permission of Dar el-Machreq Publishers.

1 Sarcophagus which Ittobaal bin Ahiram, King of Byblos, made for Ahiram, his father, when he put him in the tomb. 2 If a king among kings, or a governor among governors, or an army commander should come up to Byblos and expose this sarcophagus, may the scepter of his rule be snatched away, may the throne of his sovereignty be overturned, and as for peace, may it flee from Byblos, and as for him, may his inscription be erased before Byblos.

The stone where the last two words of the inscription are carved is very rough, which has made the reading of these words difficult. Teixidor (1987:139), using new photographs, proposes the reading given here.24

The sarcophagus, with its inscription, was originally dated by its archaeological context to the 13th century BCE. Dunand, in a postscript to his Byblia Grammata, lowered his date for the sarcophagus to ca. 1000 BCE because of some Iron age pottery discovered in the shaft of the tomb. Archaeological arguments have, however, been offered to support the earlier date by explaining the Iron Age sherds as later contamination (Hachmann 1967, Porada 1973:356–357, and cf. Garbini 1977b:81–85).25

Some have dated the inscription itself on paleographic grounds to the first half of the 10th century (Dunand 1945; Albright 1947). Martin (1961:70–75), having reexamined the sarcophagus, discovered on it a Pseudo-Hieroglyphic inscription that predates the Phœnician one, the latter beginning after and, for the most part, avoiding the earlier one. From the archaeological, art-historical, and paleographic arguments, one can surmise that the sarcophagus was probably made in the 13th century and inscribed with a Pseudo-hieroglyphic inscription. Later, around 1000 BCE, Itto-baal reused the sarcophagus to bury his father Ahiram and had a new inscription added to it.

Further up the tomb shaft Montet found a seemingly contemporary inscription warning potential grave robbers: “1 Beware! 2 Warning! There is disaster for you 3 here below!” If this inscription is to be associated with that of the sarcophagus, it would seem that Ittobaal went to great lengths to insure that no one else would do what he himself did, usurping the tomb for his own use. (Vance, D. R. (2001). Literary Sources for the History of Palestine and Syria: The Phœnician Inscriptions. Biblical Archaeologist: Volume 57 1-4, (electronic ed.), 7–8.)

#33 Nora Stone

The Phoenician inscription on the eighth-century B.C. Nora Stone—found near the ancient Phoenician settlement of Nora, modern Pula in Sardinia—proves that the name “Sardinia” has been in use for 2,800 years. The third line from the top of the 3.5-foot-high stela reads, from right to left, b sardn, meaning “on the island of Sardinia.”

The inscription appears to commemorate the early eighth-century B.C. founding of the Phoenician colony of Nora and the building of a temple dedicated to one “Lpmy”—perhaps referring to the Phoenician king Pygmalion (820–774 B.C.) of Tyre.(Shanks, H. (Ed.). (2004). Archaeology Odyssey 06:02.)

The Nora fragment (shown here, compare with drawing). Discovered in the 19th century on the island of Sardinia, this 18-inch-high by 24-inch-wide stone slab contains the remains of an inscription written in Phoenician-style Semitic letters. Epigraphers are strongly divided over the date of the inscription. Frank Moore Cross believes it was written boustrophedon-style (“as the ox ploughs,” that is, alternating between right-to-left and left-to-right) and dates it to about 1000 B.C.E. If Cross is correct, the Nora Fragment is the oldest Semitic inscription yet found in the Central or Western Mediterranean and bolsters Cross’ view that the Phoenicians disseminated the alphabet much earlier than many classicists have been willing to acknowledge. Other epigraphers, however, claim that Cross has read the inscription upside-down and that it was not written in boustrophedon fashion; these scholars date the fragment to the ninth century B.C.E. (Shanks, H. (Ed.). (2004). BR 08:06.)

#34 Tell Fakhariyeh Statue

The latest addition to the corpus of Old Aramaic tests can be found on this life-sized basalt statue, discovered in 1969 at the site of Tell Fakhariyeh (ancient Sikan), about 2 kilometers east of Tell Halaf (ancient Gozan). The inscription, which is written on the front and back of the man’s skirt, records two separate dedications of the statue of Had-Yiṯ˓i, governor of Gozan, the hadad temple of Sikanu. Thirty-eight lines of Assyrian cuneiform script are on the front of the skirt, while twenty-three lines of Aramaic script are on the back. Photographs from Abou-Assaf, Bordreuil, and Millard (1982), courtesy of Editions Recherche sur les Civilisations, Paris. (1988). Biblical Archaeologist, 51.

The Tell Fakhariyeh Bilingual Inscription was discovered in 1979. It dates to the mid-ninth century BC, and the Aramaic portion consists of 23 lines. The inscription is found on a life-size human statue along with a parallel inscription in Akkadian. Both texts consist of two dedications and are found on the skirt of the figure. They shed light on the interactions between Aram and Assyria, the religious practices associated with the storm god Hadad, and linguistic reconstruction (Layton, “Old Aramaic Inscriptions,” 176; compare Naveh, “Proto-Canaanite, Archaic Greek, and the Script of the Aramaic Text on the Tell Fakhariyah Statue,” 101–13).(Dodd, R. A. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Arameans. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.)

#35 Tel Dan Stele

Three Pieces of an Aramaic inscription engraved on a basalt monument were discovered in the early 1990’s at the Biblical city of Dan. Now referred to as the Tel Dan Stela, the original stone had been smashed in antiquity and the pieces reused in a later wall. Parts of 13 lines are readable, about one-third of the 3 ft x 2 ft inscription. Aramaic is a sister language to Old Testament Hebrew and, based on the shape of the letters, scholars date the text to the mid-ninth century B C., during the period of the divided Israelite monarchy.

Possibly Commissioned by the king of Aram (modern Syria), this is the first royal monumental inscription with a historical text ever found in Israel. While not mentioning their actual names, the text speaks of “the king of Israel” and “the House of David,” and most likely memorializes the victory of Hazael, king of Aram, over Joram, king of Israel, and Ahaziah, king of Judah, at Ramoth Gilead recorded in 2 Kings 8:28–29.

King David’s dynasty through Solomon, commonly referred to in the Bible as “the House of David,” ruled the Southern Kingdom from their capital of Jerusalem. This inscription, the first-known mention of David in a contemporary text outside the Bible, was made by an enemy only a little over 100 years after David’s death! At a time when some scholars are maintaining that David was only a mythical figure, an archaeological find has once again demonstrated the historical reliability of the Bible.(2003). Bible and Spade (2003), 16(4), 121.

#36 Moabite Stone

The Mesha Stele, or Moabite Stone, commemorates the political accomplishments of Mesha, king of Moab. The inscription glorifies his rebellion against the oppressive and powerful Omride regime. In the inscription, Mesha admits that the Omrides controlled Moab for Omri’s days and “half the days of his son” (presumably Ahab), but brags that he successfully rebelled and Israel was utterly destroyed (ll. 7–8). A biblical parallel to this account appears in 2 Kgs 3, where Mesha’s revolt is contextualized during the reign of Jehoram. The biblical account documents Israel’s aggressive response to Mesha’s rebellion. With the aid of Judah, Israel invaded Moab and systematically razed its cities (2 Kgs 3:24–25). Israel ultimately surrounded the Moabite city Kir Hareseth, only to retreat at the sight of Mesha’s gory sacrifice of his firstborn on the walls of that city (1 Kgs 3:27).(Schreiner, D. B. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Omride Dynasty. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.)

#37 Melqart Stele of Bir-Hadad

The Melqart Stele (also known as the Bar-Hadad Stele) is a dedicatory royal inscription. It was found in 1939 in a village north of Aleppo and has five lines of text below a relief of the god, Melqart. The inscription dates to the mid-ninth or early eighth century BC. The text commemorates Melqart answering a prayer from the king of Aram. It appears to mention Bar-Hadad and his father. However, the text is severely fragmented (Layton, “Old Aramaic Inscriptions,” 176–77; Hafthorsson, A Passing Power, 33–39).(Dodd, R. A. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Arameans. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.)

#38 Sefire Stele

The Sefire treaties collectively represent the longest Old Aramaic inscription—approximately 100 lines of text dating from the eighth century BC. Although three Sefire Stelae exist, the first is of special historical interest since it describes a treaty between Aram and other entities. The treaties represent first hand witnesses to treaty formulas of this period (Hafthorsson, A Passing Power, 66–69; Layton, “Old Aramaic Inscriptions,” 178–80). For more information about the Sefire Treaties, see this article: Sefire Treaties (Dodd, R. A. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Arameans. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press).

#39 Tell Siran Bottle

Ammonite artifacts provide a historical context for the Ba‘alis seal. The slender 4-inch bottle above boasts of the public works—“The orchard and the vineyard and the parks and the pools”—erected by Amminadab I, king of the Ammonites in about 650 B.C.E. The bronze bottle was recovered at Tell Siran, northwest of Amman, Jordan. Like the Ba‘alis seal, the Tell Siran inscription uses the phrase “Sons of Ammon.”(Shanks, H. (Ed.). (1999). BAR 25:02 (March/April 1999).)

Epigraphic materials from ancient Ammon include the Amman citadel inscription from the late ninth—early eighth centuries BC, a large collection of seals, an inscribed bottle from Tell Siran dating to the sixth century BC, and the Amman Theater inscription (also sixth century BC). Scholars disagree over whether the Ammonites used a distinct national script, but it is clear that their script is closely related to the Aramaic script.(Hulbert, W. G. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Ammon, Kingdom of. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press).

#40 Padi Ekron Inscription

The piéce de rèsistance of the Ekron excavations is the Ekron Royal Dedicatory Inscription, which was embedded in the back wall of the Holy of Holies of Temple 650. It reads, “The temple which he built, Achish, son of Padi, son of Ysd, son of Ada, son of Ya’ir, ruler of Ekron, for Ptgyh his lady. May she bless him, and protect him and prolong his days, and bless his land.” The inscription gives Ekron the distinction of being the only Biblical city to be identified by a monumental inscription found in place at the site. The inscription does double duty, however, by showing that the Philistines remained Philistines even as they were borrowing from surrounding cultures. It describes Achish (or Ikausu) dedicating a temple to the goddess Ptgyh. Achish may be related to the name Achaean, meaning Greek, while the goddess Ptgyh is associated with the shrine at Delphi, in Greece, dedicated to Gaia, the Mycenaean mother-goddess. Both names, then, recall the Aegean origins of the Philistines or relations between Ekron and the Aegean as late as the seventh century B.C.E. (Shanks, H. (Ed.). (2005). BAR 31:06 (Nov/Dec 2005).)




On this page we will list as many inscriptions as are possibly feasible. We may miss some but that is okay, this is just a place to whet your appetite in researching ancient inscriptions. There is no particular order to this list and our sources are many.

#1. Behistun Inscription of Darius the Great

A trilingual inscription carved by Darius the Great in the face of a 500-foot cliff near Hamadan. The relief and inscription recount the genealogy of Darius and depict his victory over Gaumata the Usurper. It is written in Old Persian, Elamite, and the Babylonian variety of Akkadian. When the inscription was discovered above the modern Bisitun (Behistun of Persia), it provided the key to deciphering cuneiform and the Akkadian language. (Major Contributors and Editors. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Behistun Inscription. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.)

#2. Sumerian King’s List

The best-documented event in the Bible is the Flood of Noah’s day. Cultures around the world have oral traditions of a great flood coming upon the earth in antiquity. In Mesopotamia, where writing first developed, the Flood story found its way into Sumerian mythology and was recorded on clay tablets early in the second millennium BC.

One such account is the Sumerian King List. The best-preserved copy is a clay prism purchased in Iraq shortly after World War I and now in the Ashmolean Museum in England. It begins, “When kingship was lowered from heaven, kingship was first in Eridu.” Following this is a list of eight kings (some versions have 10) who reigned for long periods of time ranging from 18,600 to 43, 200 years. Then, “the Flood swept over the earth.”

This is similar to Genesis 5, where the generations from Creation to the Flood are recorded. Interestingly, between Adam and Noah there are eight generations, just as there are eight kings between the beginning of kingship and the Flood in the Sumerian King List.

After the Flood, the King List records kings who ruled for much shorter periods of time. Thus, the Sumerian King List not only documents a great Flood early in man’s history, but it also reflects the same pattern of decreasing longevity as found in the Bible Men had extremely long life spans before the Flood and much shorter life spans following the Flood (2003). Bible and Spade (2003), 16(4), 120.

#3. Sumerian Deluge Tablet

The best-preserved copy of Eridu Genesis was discovered in 1895 at Nippur, which was the chief sacred city of ancient Sumer. This copy of Eridu Genesis is written in Sumerian cuneiform on a single tablet in six columns, of which only the lower third remains. Arno Poebel, who first translated the tablet in 1914, dated the text to the second half of the Early Old Babylonian Period (ca. 2000–1800 BC; for text and commentary, see PBS 4:9–70; Kramer, “The Deluge”; “Sumerian Deluge Myth” 115–21; Civil, “Sumerian Flood Story,” 138–45; Jacobsen, “Eridu Genesis [1981],” 513–29). Jacobsen proposed the more specific date of around 1600 BC and first referred to the text as Eridu Genesis, which is now the commonly used title for this ancient work (Jacobsen, “Eridu Genesis [1981],” 513).

The missing upper part of the tablet likely included another 36 lines or so per column. Some of the missing content can be inferred from context or restored from later texts preserving similar traditions. The numbering of the lines in many translations derives from the assumption that each column of text contained about 50 lines (Kramer, “The Deluge,” 43n10). Jacobsen suggests the tablet’s opening lines recorded the creation of humans and animals, likely by the goddess Nintur. Based on a fragment of a text found in Ur, Jacobsen further suggests these lines also described “the miserable way of life of man, before he had attained to the benefit of civilization” (“Eridu Genesis [1981],” 516). This passage also apparently described the dispersion of humanity, which Kramer argues was linked to the god Enki’s introduction of multiple languages (Kramer, “Sumerian Deluge Myth,” 116n2; see also Arnold and Beyer, Readings, 71).

The remaining content describes the establishing of cities and kingship and tells the story of a flood brought on by the gods. First, a god—perhaps Enki or the goddess Nintur—expresses a wish for humans to build cities and sacred places. The text then briefly describes the creation of humans (lines 37–50). In the next missing section, the god likely instructs humans on how to behave and how society is to function. Then instructions are provided on the role of the king, and the divinely sanctioned institution of kingship is bestowed on humans; five cities are named, and the construction and repair of canals are described (lines 88–100). (Bridge, E. J. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Eridu Genesis. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.)

#4. Historical text from Ebla

This tablet contains a letter from  Enna-Dagan, a king of Mari, Ebla’s rival city… A war communique in which Enna-Dagan summarizes his battles as general for Ebla against Mari. (Ancient Inscriptions BAS CD)

But it was not until the end of the 1974 season that the excavators began to unearth more spectacular finds. At that time, while removing debris from the floor of an ancient building (a palace), the first of a series of clay tablets were discovered. There were approximately forty such texts discovered at that time, dating from about 2300. However, the unusual character of the texts did not emerge until the writing as such was examined in more detail… During that season alone, they made the most dramatic part of a series of significant discoveries; they uncovered the palace archives of the ancient city of Ebla. In total, more than fifteen thousand clay tablets were discovered during the 1975 season, many broken and fragmentary, but some very large and in nearly perfect condition (which is extraordinary, considering that the tablets are nearly forty-five hundred years old). The following year, a further sixteen hundred tablets were discovered; since then the findings have been more slender, but the current total of recovered texts is approaching twenty thousand. It is thus almost the largest find of its kind (exceeded only by Mari) and certainly the largest discovery of texts from as far back in time as the third millennium B.C. (Craigie, P. C. (1983). Ugarit and the Old Testament (p. 94). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.)

#5. Prophet’s Dream (or Mari Letters)

The site of ancient Mari (modern Tell Ḥarı̄rı̄) is located on the Middle Euphrates in northeastern Syria. The city was prominent from the Early Dynastic period to the Old Babylonian period, when it was conquered by the Babylonian King Hammurapi (1760 BC, according to the Middle Chronology). Excavations began with a French expedition after a Bedouin found a statue fragment while digging a grave in 1933. The excavation was first led by André Parrot (1933–1938, 1951–1974; see Mission Archéologique de Mari, vols. 1–4) and later by Jean-Claude Margueron (since 1979). At least 25,000 clay tablets have been recovered—most of them from the archives of King Zimri-Lim (the last ruler of Mari).

The tablets are currently at the Louvre Museum in Paris and the Damascus Museum in Syria. They include administrative records, diplomatic treaties, and numerous letters that provide detailed information about the daily life and politics of the Near Eastern world over a period of 20 years. The texts have been published in the series Archives Royales de Mari (1946–), some volumes of which contain autographs (ARM); others contain transliterations and French translations (ARMT). Another publication devoted almost entirely to the study of Mari is known by the acronym MARI (= Mari: Annales de recherches interdisciplinaires; 1982–).

The texts and artifacts of ancient Mari are important for both Assyriology and biblical studies. These two disciplines intersect on numerous matters, including prophecy and pastoral nomadism. Additionally, many details from the Mari discoveries shed light on the study of the Hebrew Bible. For example, the topic of nomadism can provide insight into the cultural context of Genesis’ patriarchal narratives and the emergence of ancient Israel (see Fleming, “From Joseph to David,” 78–96; Matthews, “Syria to the Early Second Millennium,” 168–190; Rowton, “Dimorphic Structure,” 13–20).

Perhaps the most important point of contact between Mari and the Bible concerns the phenomenon of prophecy. Fifty-five of the recovered letters from the archive of King Zimri-Lim concern prophets or prophecy (most of these are published in ARMT 26/1). John H. Walton’s chart summarizing the contents of these letters shows that the letters typically include the name of the deity, the recipient of the letter, and the name of the king (Zimri-Lim; see Walton, Ancient Israelite Literature, 204–5). Only about half of the examples include the name of the prophet and/or the prophet’s title.

The letters record at least five titles for male and female prophets who advised Zimri-Lim (see Malamat, Mari and the Bible, 65–68, 86–90, 110; Matthews and Benjamin, Old Testament Parallels, 341; Moran, “Akkadian Letters,” 624 n. 13, 625 n. 29, 632x; Nissinen, Prophets and Prophecy, 6–7, 14; Walton, Ancient Israelite Literature, 211–12): (Way, K. C. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Mari Archive. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.)

#6. Amarna letters

In 1887 a store of hundreds of ancient letters was discovered at a location in Egypt called el-Amarna. These letters, clay tablets from Palestine, had been written to two Pharaohs (Amenhotep III and IV) between the years 1400 and 1367 BC. The senders were officials and “kinglets” of the Canaanite cities of Palestine about the time that Joshua led the children of Israel into the land. Palestine was then part of the Egyptian empire.

 Soon after 1380 BC Amenhotep IV (Greek spelling—Amenophis) moved the Egyptian capital from Thebes to Amarna. The “Foreign Office” files relating to his father’s reign were moved to Amarna.

The letters are written in Babylonian and many of them refer to impending invasions and hostilities by the Hapiru (and by another group which many scholars believe is a code logogram for the same people). Though the identity of the Hapiru is disputed among scholars, conservative Biblical scholars have equated them here with the Hebrews who had by this time arrived in the land, and completed their initial conquests. (The Hapiru were roving, warlike people, and the term was used for others, beside the Hebrews.)

The governor of Jerusalem wrote several letters to Pharaoh, pleading for help to resist the invaders (2000). Bible and Spade (2000), 13, 44.

#7. Babylonian Job tablet

This clay tablet is one of the most important manuscripts of a long Babylonian poem describing the plight of a righteous sufferer and the eventual restoration of his was found in the ruins of the palace of the neo-Assyrian King Assurbanipal (668-627 BC) in Nineveh which was destroyed in 612 BC. (Ancient Inscriptions BAS CD)

#8. Gilgamesh Epic

There are 184 fragments of 73 different manuscripts of the epic (George, Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic, 379) and no original, complete versions. Of the numerous extant versions of the Epic of Gilgamesh, most are severely fragmented. Modern editions are compilations of the story from a variety of fragments. The most complete form of the work dates to the first millennium BC). Sumerian tablet fragments featuring a character named “Gilgamesh” have been recovered throughout the ancient Near East, but they do not amount to a full story (George, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic, 71–90). Middle Babylonian—era fragments have been found at the sites of ancient Anatolia, Megiddo, Ugarit, and throughout the contemporary Middle East.

In 1848, Layard, Rassam, and Smith discovered clay tablets containing portions of the Epic of Gilgamesh in the ruins of a royal library in Nineveh (in present-day Iraq; Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic, 1). Smith, a well-known scholar on Assyria, sorted and translated the tablets in the 1860s (George, Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic, 380). The story unfolds over 12 tablets written in Akkadian cuneiform, with about 300 lines on each tablet.

Ancient Mesopotamians recorded literature in Akkadian and Sumerian starting around 2600 BC (George, Epic of Gilgamesh, xvi). Five Sumerian poems reference Gilgamesh (“Bilgames” in Sumerian) and contain stories such as his adventure in the Cedar Forest and the slaying of the Bull of Heaven. Various older Sumerian texts also may be linked to the Epic of Gilgamesh, such as the story of his parents—King Lugalbanda and the goddess Ninsun (George, Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic, 5). Two groups of Babylonian versions have some dependence on the Sumerian poems—the “Old Babylonian” versions (from the early centuries of the second millennium) and the “Middle Babylonian” versions (ranging from the 15th to seventh centuries BC; George, Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic, 17–27). Moreover, there are a number of additional Assyrian fragments of the text (George, Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic, 348–53). By the seventh century BC, canonical versions of the epic—the “Standard Babylonian” version—appeared in Nineveh and the libraries of Babylonia (George, Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic, 348). These versions contained the title “He who saw the Deep” (George, Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic, 28). The Babylonians attributed the epic to Sin-leqi-unninni—a legendary poet or a professional scholar.

The most-consulted version of the Epic of Gilgamesh is a combination of the Old Babylonian version (OB), written in Akkadian during the second millennium BC, and the Neo-Assyrian version (NA), composed in the first millennium BC. The OB and NA share themes and a core narrative arc, making them the centerpiece for constructing the epic. It is unknown when, by whom, and for what purpose the two major sources were united (Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia, 45–47).

A significant difference between the OB and NA is the lack of a flood narrative in the OB version (Tigay, Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic, 214–70). The OB may have concluded after Gilgamesh’s initial trial and subsequent failure at immortality. The NA, however, includes Utnapishtim’s flood experiences alongside Gilgamesh’s lack of success. Thus, the story of Utnapishtim and the flood (Tablet XI) may be a later addition to the Epic of Gilgamesh. (Kuo, J. C., & Redding, J. D. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Gilgamesh, Epic of. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.)

#9. Babylonian Creation Story

“The most important single witness to Babylonian speculation on the origins and nature of man is,” as Moran says, “the description of his creation in the first tablet of the ‘Atra-H̬asis Epic,’ especially lines 192–248” (1970: 48).3 In 1967, Millard first noted that the “Atrahasis Epic is more specific on [the making of man] than any other Babylonian Creation account.” In the “Atra-H̬asis Epic” I 221ff.,      Man was created from the flesh and blood of a slaughtered god mixed with clay. . . . Man’s earthy constituency is emphasized by both Babylonian and Hebrew (i.e., Gn 2:7) narratives, and his divine part equally. . . . No hint of the use of dead deity or any material part of a living one is found in Genesis (1994:120).

In 1969, Lambert and Millard discussed the account of man’s creation in the “Atra-H̬asis Epic” in detail.

The author used what was the generally accepted view . . . that man was formed from clay mixed with the blood of a slain god. . . . ‘Clay’ in this context is the material substance of the human body. This can be learnt from a number of passages that speak of death as a “returning to clay.” Exactly the same conception is shown in the Hebrew account of man’s creation . . . (Gn 3:19) (1969:21; see also Lambert 1980:73).

As for the “blood,” Lambert and Millard speculate that “in all probability the Babylonians conceived of man as matter (‘clay’) activated by the addition of divine blood,” while on the other hand “the Hebrew account of creation in Genesis 2 explains that God imparted ‘the breath of life’ into man, and so animation began” (1969: 22).(1996). Bible and Spade (1996), 9, 35.

#10 Black Obelisk

 This act is recorded on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III. The obelisk is a 6+ -foot-tall, four-sided, black limestone pillar covered with pictures and writing on all sides. On one side, in the second row from the top, there occurs the only known picture of a Hebrew king. Jehu is shown prostrating himself before Shalmaneser.

The text tells us that he is submitting tribute of very great value. Jehu is named and described as the son [i.e.: successor] of Omri. Says Shalmaneser —”I received from him silver, gold, a golden bowl, golden goblets, pitchers of gold, tin, a staff for the hand of the king…” etc. Thus the existence of another Bible king receives solid corroboration from contemporary secular records.(2000). Bible and Spade (2000), 13, 38.

Other exploits of Shalmaneser are recounted on the Black Obelisk. On one set of reliefs, King Jehu of Israel bows before the Assyrian king as he brings tribute. This stele describes Jehu as a “son of Omri.” According to the biblical text, Jehu actually descends from a different family, but the obelisk may testify to a particular Assyrian perception. Miller and Hayes argue,” ‘Bit-Omri’ [House of Omri] was what the Assyrians frequently called Israel, apparently recognizing Omri as its founder” (Miller and Hayes, A History of Ancient Israel and Judah, 331).(Schreiner, D. B. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Omride Dynasty. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.)

Detail of the Black Obelisk. In this relief, a king of Israel (or perhaps his emissary) kneels before Shalmaneser, who appears to be admiring a vessel he has received. The annals of Shalmaneser III date the event to 841 B.C.E. The cuneiform inscription on the obelisk identifies the kneeling figure as “Yaw, son of Omri,” leading scholars to identify the king as Omri’s successor Jehu (c. 883–872).(Shanks, H. (Ed.). (2004). BAS Ancient Israel. Biblical Archaeology Society).

#11 The Taylor Prism

This 15-inch-high stand (compare with photo of Sennacherib carving), known as the “Taylor prism” (after Colonel James Taylor, a British diplomat who acquired it in 1830), describes all eight of Sennacherib’s campaigns. The prism was likely embedded in the foundation of the king’s “palace without rival,” to remind future kings of the glories of their predecessor’s reign: “When this palace grows old and falls into ruins, may some future prince repair its ruined parts! May he take notice of this inscription in which my name is recorded! May he anoint it with oil, pour out a libation over it and return it to its place!”(Shanks, H. (Ed.). (2004). Archaeology Odyssey 05:02.)

The Taylor Prism from Nineveh which records the details of Sennacherib’s campaign against Judah, including his besieging of “Hezekiah the Judahite” in Jerusalem.(1991). Bible and Spade (1991), 4(2), 50.

“Like a bird in a cage.” In 1830, British Colonel R. Taylor discovered a six-sided clay prism inscribed in cuneiform at Nineveh. Known today as Taylor’s Prism and sitting in the British Museum, it recorded Sennacherib’s first eight military campaigns. During his third campaign, in 701 BC, he besieged Jerusalem and mentioned the king of Judah, saying, “Hezekiah…I made a prisoner in Jerusalem in his royal residence, like a bird in a cage.” Interestingly, the same event is also recounted three times in the Bible (2 Kgs 19; 2 Chr 32; Is 36–37). While Sennacherib was capturing cities all over Philistia, Phoenicia and Palestine, by his own admission he did not take Jerusalem. In fact, at his palace at Nineveh, Sennacherib highlighted this campaign by depicting his capture of Lachish, one of Hezekiah’s cities. Why didn’t he depict his capture of Jerusalem? Because he didn’t take it! Why didn’t he take it? He doesn’t say—but the Bible does. With Sennacherib’s troops surrounding the city, God said, “I will defend this city, and save it, for my sake” (2 Kgs 19:34). And He did! Even Sennacherib’s own annals attest to it!(2004). Bible and Spade (2004), 17(3), 92.

#12 The Oriental Institute Prism

The monument known as Sennacherib’s Prism is a fascinating artifact from Assyria’s past. It gives a different account from the Bible about an important event in Israel’s history—a siege against Jerusalem conducted by King Sennacherib of Assyria (ruled 705–681 B.C.) about 690 B.C. (Is. 36; 37).

The fifteen-inch-high clay prism contains well-preserved Assyrian script that verifies the attack on Jerusalem and King Hezekiah of Judah by Assyrian forces. “As to Hezekiah, the Jew, he did not submit to my yoke,” the prism reads. “I laid siege to 46 of his strong cities, walled forts and to countless small cities in their vicinity, and conquered them…. [Hezekiah] I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage.”

While Sennacherib’s siege against Jerusalem is a verified historical fact, it is interesting that Sennacherib’s account does not mention how the siege ended. This leads to suspicion among historians that the siege failed, since the Assyrians never mentioned their defeats in their official records—only their victories.

The biblical account indicates that Sennacherib suffered a crushing defeat in his siege of Jerusalem because of divine intervention. During the night, thousands of soldiers in the Assyrian army died through the action of the angel of the Lord (2 Kin. 19:35). Some scholars believe God used a deadly plague as an instrument of judgment against the enemies of His people.

Rulers of the ancient world used monuments such as this prism on which to record their exploits. These documents of stone and clay have survived for centuries in the rubble and ruin of ancient cities. They provide valuable insight into life in Bible times, confirming and, in many cases, adding valuable information about biblical events.(Thomas Nelson Publishers. (1996). Nelson’s complete book of Bible maps & charts: Old and New Testaments (Rev. and updated ed.). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson).

After having conquered the ten northern tribes of Israel, the Assyrians moved southward to do the same for Judah (2 Kgs 18–19). The prophet Isaiah, however, told Hezekiah that God would protect Judah and Jerusalem against Sennacherib (2 Chr 32; Is 36–37). Assyrian records virtually confirm this. The cuneiform on a hexagonal, 38 cm (15 in) baked clay prism found at the Assyrian capital of Nineveh describes Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah in 701 BC, in which it claims that the Assyrian king shut Hezekiah inside Jerusalem “like a caged bird.” However, like the Biblical record, it does not state that he conquered Jerusalem, which the prism certainly would have done had this been the case. In fact, the Assyrians bypassed Jerusalem on their way to Egypt, and the city would not fall until the time of Nebuchadnezzar and the Neo-Babylonians. Sennacherib himself returned to Nineveh and was murdered by his own sons.(2004). Bible and Spade (2004), 17(3), 93.

#13 Babylonian World Map

It’s just a badly damaged, 4-inch-high clay map inscribed on both sides with cuneiform text. But it gives us a clean bird’s-eye view of the ancient Babylonians themselves.

The Babylonian Map of the World shows a vast circular continent completely surrounded by a great ocean (labeled marratu, meaning “salt sea”). Beyond the ocean are eight uncharted regions, depicted as triangles.

Prominently at the center of the world is Babylon,which is represented as a large rectangle. The map also shows Assyria, as a much smaller circle, and several cities, such as Susa. The Euphrates River, depicted as a pair of parallel lines, flows from the northern mountains to Babylon, where it bisects the city, turns due south and empties into a marshland (labeled apparu, or “swamp”). This marshland is the region where the Euphrates River merges with the Tigris River (not shown on the map) before draining into the Persian Gulf.

No one knows where the map was found, though many scholars believe it came from Sippar or Borsippa, both about 50 miles north of Babylon. The map’s date is also unknown. It cannot be older than the ninth century B.C. because it uses certain words—such as the word for salt sea, marratu—that did not appear in cuneiform texts until the reign of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III (858–824 B.C.).

In these early texts, however, marratu refers specifically to the Persian Gulf; only in the late eighth century B.C. did marratu come to designate any ocean. So our ancient Babylonian cartographer probably made this map in the late eighth or seventh century B.C.

Clearly, he was not making a map to travel by. Assyria, which was really north of Babylon, is placed to the east. The ancient Persian city of Susa, though in fact directly east of Babylon, comes far to the south on the map. The Euphrates is almost as large as the great ocean, and the Tigris has vanished entirely.

The map does, however, get some things right. It correctly depicts the Euphrates’s course, the northern mountains and the southern marshland. We also know that in the first millennium B.C., the Euphrates did indeed bisect Babylon. According to the fifth-century B.C. Greek historian Herodotus, for example, “There are two sections of the city [Babylon], for a river flows through the middle. The name is the Euphrates” (Histories 1.180).

Why was the map made? Probably to set distant, peripheral regions in relation to the navel of the world: Babylon.

The text on the reverse side, though fragmentary, tells of the eight triangular regions beyond the ocean, while the text on the obverse side (above the map) appears to describe the creation of the universe by the Babylonian god Marduk after his battle with the sea. Therefore, the map’s main purpose is ideological, not geographical: It presents an image of Babylonian cosmology and cultural hegemony.(Shanks, H. (2004). Archaeology Odyssey 03:04.)

#14 Cyrus Cylinder

2 Chronicles 36:23 and Ezra 1 report that Cyrus the Great of Persia, after conquering Babylon, permitted Jews in the Babylonian Captivity to return to their homeland. Isaiah had even prophesied this (Is 44:28). This tolerant policy of the founder of the Persian Empire is borne out by the discovery of a 23 cm (9 in) clay cylinder found at Babylon from the time of its conquest, 539 BC, which reports Cyrus’ victory and his subsequent policy of permitting Babylonian captives to return to their homes and even rebuild their temples. (2004). Bible and Spade (2004), 17(3), 93.

CYRUS CYLINDER. King Cyrus of Persia allowed the Jews to return home and rebuild their temple. Inscribed on this clay cylinder are the king’s words: “As to the region from … as far as Ashur and Susa, Akkad …, as well as the towns of the Gutians, … I also gathered all their former inhabitants and returned to them their habitations.(Packer, J. I., Tenney, M. C., & White, W., Jr. (1997). Nelson’s illustrated manners and customs of the Bible (p. 629). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson).

The Cyrus Cylinder relates the Persian conquest of Babylon. The inscription begins with several broken lines portraying King Nabû-na’id (Nabonidus) of Babylon (556–539 BC) as a sinful and unjust king. Marduk, the city god of Babylon, abandons his city and inspects and checks “all the countries, seeking for the upright king of his choice” (11–12; Finkel, Cylinder). The chosen king, Cyrus, takes control of Babylon and captures Nabû-na’id. Line 20 assigns Cyrus all the traditional titles of the kings of Assyria and Babylonia: “king of the universe, the great king, the powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world” (e.g., see the royal inscriptions of Sîn-aḫḫī-erība, Aššur-aḫu-iddina, and Nabû-kudurri-uṣur). The Cylinder then lists Cyrus’ achievements, including building projects and conquests, and notes that former captives were allowed to return to their homelands.(Krijgsman, M. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Cyrus Cylinder. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press).

#15 Rosetta Stone

A black basalt tablet unearthed in August, 1799, near the village of Rosetta, Egypt, then taken to the British Museum in 1802. The stone was inscribed in three languages: hieroglyphic, demotic Egyptian, and Koine Greek. This stone was the key that the brilliant young French scholar and Egyptologist, Jean Francois Champollion, used to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics. Champollion broke the hieroglyphic code by comparing it with the other two languages, which were translations of the same text. The discovery of this stone made it possible for scholars to translate Egyptian texts and to understand various aspects of the background of Israel’s history. (Youngblood, R. F., Bruce, F. F., & Harrison, R. K., Thomas Nelson Publishers (Eds.). (1995). In Nelson’s new illustrated Bible dictionary. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.)

A large, black stone with parallel inscriptions written in Egyptian hieroglyphs, Egyptian demotic writing, and Greek. A critical tool for breaking the code of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

The Rosetta Stone dates from the ninth year of Ptolemy V’s reign (196 BC), and contains a decree issued by priests at Memphis. The top section of the stone is hieroglyphics, which were known among scholars at the time of its discovery, though scholars lacked a sufficient linguistic key to interpret their meaning. On the second section is demotic, a cursive form of Egyptian writing. Greek script is on the lowest section of the stone.

In 1799 French soldiers discovered the Rosetta Stone outside el-Rashid (Rosetta), where foundations were being laid for an addition to a French fort. Excavation crews stumbled upon this large stone, and the French took possession. In 1801 the British government claimed the Rosetta Stone as one of the terms of the Treaty of Alexandria. The artifact has been housed in the British Museum since 1802, with the exception of a brief period when it was moved for safekeeping during the bombing raids on England during World War II. In recent years, the Egyptian government has demanded its return, though as of 2015 the requests have not been honored.(Wilson, D. K. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Rosetta Stone. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.)

#16 Coffin Text

The magical texts are not easily labeled as literary writings. Examples of magical texts include the utterances of the Pyramid texts of the Old Kingdom, which serve to endorse the afterlife of the kings (AEL:I, 29). The spells of the Coffin Texts found in the tombs of the upper class elite in the Middle Kingdom represent the expansion of access to the divine, wherein the elite may also join the sun-god in daily resurrection. The Coffin Texts are better classified as literature than their Old Kingdom models because they speak of anxiety about death and suffering, sometimes explicitly but often implicitly through hyperbolic claims to immortality and divinity (AEL:I, 131). The New Kingdom Book of the Dead allows a reader to secure a spot in the afterlife by reciting the proper spells to achieve resurrection (AEL:II, 119). The much later Demotic magical papyri are also related to these traditions (Tait, “Demotic Literature”).(Bledsoe, S. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Egyptian Literature. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.)

#17 Story of Sinuhe

The Tale of Sinuhe,1 composed during Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, may help resolve scholarly debates about social conditions in Canaan-Syria (also known as the Levant) in the early second millennium B.C.

Sinuhe’s story takes place during the reigns of the first two pharaohs of Egypt’s 12th Dynasty: Amenemhet I (1991–1962 B.C.) and Senuseret I (1971–1928 B.C.). It is told in the first person by Sinuhe himself, a high official in Amenemhet’s court who leaves Egypt, travels to Canaan, raises a family and finally returns to Egypt in order to live out his days among his own people and receive a proper burial.

Although the earliest manuscripts of the tale date to later in the 12th Dynasty (see the sidebar to this article), the text was probably written in the 20th century B.C. A number of scholars—including Alan Gardiner,2 the editor of the critical text of the Tale of Sinuhe—believe that the story was originally composed for the tomb of a real person named Sinuhe, though no such tomb has yet been discovered. Whether or not Sinuhe actually lived, the story does show a detailed acquaintance with the land of his sojourn, which in the text is called Tnw, an abbreviated form of Rtnw (Retjenu, later Retenu), the standard Egyptian name for Canaan (and perhaps north Syria). The question is, What can Sinuhe’s adventure tell us about the prevailing social and cultural conditions in Retenu/Canaan at the time, and how does this picture fit with the archaeological record?(Shanks, H. (Ed.). (2004). Archaeology Odyssey 01:04.)

SINUHE, TALE OF Sinuhe. An ancient Egyptian work in which Sinuhe, a courtier in the 12th Dynasty, narrates his journey and self-imposed exile in Syria and Palestine. It is often compared with the Joseph narrative in Gen 37–50

The Tale of Sinuhe begins with the flight of Sinuhe, a courtier of Amenemhet I, after he hears of the king’s assassination. Scholars have proposed a variety of possibilities for his flight: confusion, fear of being charged with treason, and, most likely, the anticipation of chaos triggered by Amenemhet’s death (Morschauer, “What Made Sinuhe Run,” 195).

Sinuhe initially plans to go south, but when he reaches the Nile, he finds a boat with no navigational implements. From the eastern side of the Nile, he travels to the land of Retenu in southern Syria, near Byblos. He marries a local chieftain’s daughter and settles down there. He accumulates wealth and becomes a prominent member of the community, defending his father-in-law’s holdings and serving as a host for the Egyptian delegates. In his old age, Sinuhe reflects on his Egyptian roots and develops a longing to return home. The new king, Sesostris I (Senusret I), grants Sinuhe immunity from any crime of which he may have been suspected. Sinuhe returns to Egypt, leaving all of his holdings in Syria-Palestine, and is restored to his former privileged status in the Egyptian court. He dies in peace, and Pharaoh gives him a grand Egyptian burial.


The Tale of Sinuhe provides a valuable depiction of life in Canaan as well as of the Egyptians’ perceived superiority toward foreigners (Rainey, “Sinuhe’s World,” 277, 293). Sesostris I’s magnanimous reply to Sinuhe may also suggest an element of royal propaganda; Sinuhe’s response represents Pharaoh as a life-giving presence (Simpson, Literature of Ancient Egypt, 64–66). This life of a fugitive, unique among ancient Egyptian literature, functions as a “broken icon” of the ideal life of Egypt (Moers, “Broken Icons”) (Han, J. H. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Sinuhe, Tale of. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.)

#18 Execration Text

Clay figurine from Saqqara of a captive Asiatic prince with an execration text written across it in Egyptian script. Such figurines were smashed after the curse (execration) was written, and thus a hex was placed upon the enemy named in the text. These texts form an important primary source for our knowledge of Levantine political developments from the Middle Bronze period because they list the names of rulers and city-states in Canaan, southern Syria, and along the Mediterranean coast.(1987). Biblical Archaeologist, 50.

The Egyptian execration texts are a collection of shards from inscribed clay figurines, jars, or bowls dating from either the 12th or 13th Dynasty in the 19th or 18th centuries BC (Grabbe, Ancient Israel, 42). Written in hieratic, these texts contain the names of geographical locations and peoples, including various Asiatics as well as Libyans, Nubians, and even Egyptians (Weinstein, “Egyptian Relations,” 12). Although the inscriptions themselves contain no explicit curses, the objects on which they were written would be ritually smashed to effect a curse against the people at whom the text was aimed (Grabbe, Ancient Israel, 42). The fate of the enemies mentioned in the texts was thus identified with the smashed vessel or image. It is likely that the texts were compiled by the state chancellery, as the texts reflect changes in rulers and territories (Hallo and Younger, Context of Scripture, 50).

The texts were found in several groupings. The first of these, the so-called Berlin Texts, were found at Thebes and consist of 289 inscribed shards (Ahlström, History, 170). The Berlin texts mention some 19 territories or cities as well as the Transjordanian Shutu peoples, along with their rulers. A newer group of texts, the Brussels Texts, was found at Sakkara and consists of small figurines, mentioning 64 Palestinian places or peoples. A third group of texts found at Mirgissa in Nubia bears similar phraseology, and were contemporary with the Berlin Texts. These texts were directed against peoples in Libya, Nubia, and Syria-Palestine, as well as the forces of evil with which these enemies were reckoned (Ahlström, The History of Ancient Palestine, 171).(Briggs, W. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Execration Texts. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.)

The execration texts are valuable sources of topographical information about pre-biblical Palestine during Middle Bronze II. They mention the Phoenician sites of Byblos and Tyre, which were prominent city-states whose importance for trade along the Mediterranean coast continued into biblical times (1 Kgs 5; Ezek 27:9). Damascus of Syria is also mentioned, which likewise continued to be an important city in the Kings account. Within Palestine, Aphek, Ashtaroth, Akko, Laish, Hazor, Rehov, Megiddo, Ekron, Beth-shemesh, Beth-shean, Lod, and Ashkelon are mentioned along the coastal plain, as well as Jerusalem and Shechem in the highlands. Notably absent from the settlement picture are the Ephraimite hill country and large portions of Syria (Grabbe, Ancient Israel, 42). The execration texts also provide valuable information about Egypt’s enemies during this time period (Pinch, Magic in Ancient Egypt, 93). It is possible that the increase in Palestinian place names from the Berlin to the Brussels Texts indicates a certain apprehensiveness on the part of Egypt toward the rising political and military power of the Palestinian city-states during Middle Bronze II (Weinstein, “Egyptian Relations,” 12). The decrease in Egyptian influence over the area would allow for the creation of new polities, such as Israel.

A large number of the execration texts are against the Shutu (Shasu), a nomadic group of Semites from east of the Jordan River. The Shutu have been connected with the “Sethites” of Num 24:17. Considering the Israelites’ nomadic origins (Deut 26:5), their entry into Palestine from the east (Josh 3), and the entry of some Shutu into Egypt in the 13th century, some scholars have suggested that the Shutu form part of the prehistory of the people of Israel (Callaway and Shanks, “The Settlement in Canaan,” 79). Given the apparent lack of settlement in the Israelite hill country, it is plausible that such nomads could have settled there and become the group of people later known as Israel as they became more sedentary—a process reflected in the increase in sites mentioned in the execration texts (Grabbe, Ancient Israel 42). This view is not universal among scholars, however, as some argue execration texts are not the most reliable sources for historiography (Ahlström, The History of Ancient Palestine, 171). Furthermore, the idea that the execration texts reflect a process of sedentarization has been challenged (Redford, “Execration and Execration Texts,” 681).(Briggs, W. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Execration Texts. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.)

#19 Hatshepsut’s Hyksos Inscription

If Professor Goedicke’s dating of the Exodus is correct, the Pharaoh of the Exodus was a woman—Hatshepsut, who ruled Egypt from 1487 B.C. to 1468 B.C. Professor Goedicke has even identified a hieroglyphic inscription of Hatshepsut, which, he says, is an independent Egyptian account of the Exodus!(Shanks, H. (Ed.). (1981). BAR 07:05 (Sep/Oct 1981).

At an almost inaccessible point, high above the entry point of the Speos, Hatshepsut’s scribe engraved an inscription of 42 columns consisting primarily of a list of temples in Middle Egypt the queen had restored. According to the last five columns of the text, this shrines had been damaged during the period of the Hyksos rule which she reproachfully refers to as the time when the Asiatics were in Avaris of the Northern land. (Biblical Inscriptions BAS CD)

#20 Beth-Shan Stele of Seti I

Three of their stelae were found at Beth-shan, although they were actually excavated in Levels II, V and VI. One of the Seti stelae reports an attack or pending attack on Beth-shan, which Seti squelches in one day. The second refers to a disturbance by some ‘Apiru which irritated Seti, so he sent his troops into the hills to restore order. This took two days. The second stele has frequently been related to the Hebrews and sometimes to the conquest under Joshua and their failure to capture Beth-shan. The stele, however, has no reference to an attack on Beth-shan itself (2001). Biblical Archaeologist 1-4, 30(electronic ed.).

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