Early Hebrew writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Zotero: a wizard’s companion

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been using Zotero, a free browser add-on for Firefox that allows you to manage bibliographic citations online. I’d tried it months ago on my old, decrepit computer but found it to be slow and clunky, but wow, what a difference it has made to my research. It’s sleek, integrates perfectly with tools like Google Scholar, and allows you to export in virtually any bibliographic format. It seems to allow you to index just about any sort of source, including PDFs and web sites, with ease. Of course, if something is poorly referenced at the source, that won’t help you, but it has clarified a lot of things for me. I have been known to describe myself to students as a ‘wizard’ of bibliographic search, both online and otherwise, and Zotero has already made things much, much faster for me.

It’s striking how fast online research is changing – just ten months ago, when I had my Methods students do bibliographic research on Paleolithic mathematical and calendrical notations, I was wary of Google Scholar’s breadth and advised against using it exclusively, and I didn’t really have any notion of how to advise students to collect references online efficiently. With Zotero, their work would have been much, much faster and easier. So, because I know some of those people are reading this: sorry, guys!

Now if I could only find a way to take the giant Word document of references on numerical notation that I’ve been compiling since 1998, and import it into Zotero (or anything else), that would be pretty handy. But even a wizard has his limits.

Genes, languages, and archaeology

John Hawks has a new blog entry entitled ‘Gene-culture models and reductionism‘, which is a thoughtful response to a 2004 letter in American Anthropologist. The letter adopts a highly skeptical view towards the possibility that genetic information can tell us much about prehistoric population history and specifically that it can tell us much about cultural and linguistic prehistory. Hawks, in contrast, takes a more moderate view that leaves open the possibility that we can use genetic, linguistic, and archaeological evidence in tandem, while acknowledging that naively using one as a proxy for the other two is a serious error. Read it, then come back here. It’s short, and I’ll wait.

This is a subject of some interest to me, as a historically and prehistorically-minded linguistic anthropologist (or a linguistically-minded archaeological anthropologist, I don’t care which). The late Bruce Trigger and I published a chapter in 2004 (perhaps we could have found a better venue for it) in which we talk about the naive ways in which Iroquoian studies have used archaeological evidence to attribute ethnic identification (esp. ‘Iroquoian’ vs. ‘Algonkian’) to sites, and linked this problematic issue to broader problems in the use of archaeology to reconstruct language and ethnicity (Chrisomalis and Trigger 2004). The AA letter rightly points out that identifications of tribes or fixed social structures that correlate with genetic populations – or, unmentioned, languages – is problematic, and the notion that any of these must correspond with overarching ethnic identities is doubly problematic, as Barth (1969) argued persuasively decades ago. And yet …

It has long been recognized (since the 19th century at least) that language families are organized phylogenetically and that biological taxa are phylogenetic. This is partly a reflection of reality, and partly a reflection of the mutual reinforcement of phylogenetic models in linguistics and biology through academic interdisciplinary discourse over the past couple hundred years. But the problem noted by Hawks (and which no one interested in the subject can ignore) is that biological transmission (excepting some viruses) is vertical – you get all your genetic material from your parents alone – whereas cultural and linguistic transmission is both vertical and horizontal – that is, you get a lot of your culture from non-kin, including people who may not be part of your ‘tribe’. This is the sort of work that people like Steve Shennan (2002) are doing, and while I am not always convinced by the answers he reaches (particularly, I remain unconvinced that vertical, parent-child linguistic and cultural transmission is as important as he thinks it is), the research deserves more attention than it is getting.

On Tuesday, I am introducing my class to this subject through Colin Renfrew’s (2000) paper ‘At the edge of knowability: towards a prehistory of languages’. Again, I’m not always in agreement with Renfrew (I’m more of a skeptic than he is), but I’m thrilled that people are asking these questions. As social scientists and humanists, linguists and archaeologists need to forcefully assert the relevance of their data, and not let themselves be run roughshod by geneticists who treat their apex of the triad as the cornerstone of all knowledge in the field. One of my hopes for this blog, and for my research in general, is to be able to contribute to ongoing discussions on this issue. This post is, at best, a preliminary introduction to a topic which I suspect you will see here very often in the months (dare I hope for years?) to come.

Works cited

Barth, F. 1969. Ethnic groups and boundaries. Boston: Little, Brown.
Chrisomalis, S. and B.G. Trigger. 2004. Reconstructing prehistoric ethnicity: problems and possibilities. In In J. V. Wight and J.-L. Pilon (eds), A Passion for the Past: Papers in Honour of James F. Pendergast, pp. 419-433. Mercury Series, Paper No 164. Ottawa: Canadian Museum of Civilization.
Renfrew, C. 2000. At the Edge of Knowability: Towards a Prehistory of Languages. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 10(1): 7-34.
Shennan, S. 2002. Genes, memes and human history: Darwinian archaeology and cultural evolution. London: Thames & Hudson.
Wildcat, D., I. Sumi and V. Deloria Jr. 2004. Commentary: A Response to Doug Jones. American Anthropologist 106, no. 3: 641.

Why I blog

I’ve only been blogging at Glossographia for six weeks, but I’ve been blogging at my non-professional blog, The Growlery, for six years, which must correspond to a century or more in Internet time.    And over those past six years, but particularly over the past six weeks, I’ve been thinking a bit about the different reasons I blog.

I blog because I like to think someone out there is reading and thinking about an issue differently than they did before.   I have never been accused of being unopinionated, and the sharp immediacy of the blogging environment gives me a thrill I rarely find outside the classroom – with the added benefit that my words are there on the screen to mull over.  Want to know what I think about something?  You can be pretty sure I’ve written about it somewhere, and if not, you know where to ask.

I blog because the community of interesting and thoughtful people that I know through blogging.  Livejournal is not primarily the refuge of fourteen-year-old emo kids.  Fully one-third of my friends list has at least one graduate degree, and there are (at last count) a dozen people with doctorates and another half-dozen who are pursuing the doctorate. I know doctors, lawyers, and architects – most of whom I have never met in real life – and people from virtually any other field of endeavour you might think of.  Not to mention the reams of bright, fascinating people whose paths have not yet led them to further education, or never will.

I blog because of my colleagues.  Anthropology seems to be underrepresented in the academic blogosphere, in comparison to, say, history or linguistics (two other fields in which I have some specialized training and interest), which is a shame.  I find it to be absolutely essential not only as a tool for social networking, but also as a tool for playing around with ideas that may not yet be quite ready for peer review, but which need a collective of thinkers.   Is academic blogging playful, even trivial sometimes?  Sure, but so is 95% of what academics do on any given day.  Is it going to give me tenure?  Not likely, but I don’t sit up nights panicking about that.  Is it worthwhile, socially and intellectually?  Damn right it is.

I blog because I see the potential for blogging to change the way we think about academic mentorship also.  One of the real joys I had while working at McGill was to observe the level of student participation in presenting ongoing research, as in the NOCUSO field school blog from Finland, or the zooarchaeology field school blog from Parc Safari in southern Quebec, both spearheaded by my friend Andre Costopoulos, but written and run by the junior scholars there who I am happy to call my friends and colleagues also.  In these efforts, as well as in the web-published projects I run, I see a grand opportunity for extremely bright and thoughtful young scholars to develop their ideas and find their voice – as well as to stay in touch.   Next term I am looking forward to having my graduate students at Wayne do similar sorts of work.

I blog because I believe in the democratization of knowledge.   That may sound all highfalutin and whatnot, but what it comes down to is a feeling of obligation to share things that I know, without any expectation of reward.  I’ve been doing that for over a decade now at the Phrontistery, and my motivation is still much the same as it was back in 1996 in the Middle Paleo-Internet.  Sure, my day job involves me getting paid to share my knowledge, but that doesn’t mean I think I should get paid for everything I write.  I am privileged enough to enjoy a career that allows me the freedom to do this service.

I blog because of my friends (academic and otherwise).  I recently moved to a city of 300,000 where I know virtually no one who is not a blood relation – and let me tell you, I don’t do well in isolation.  Most of my closest friends are nine hours’ drive away in Montreal, and most of the rest are even more distant.  But over the past little while I’ve come to realize that I’m not really alone, and that, while I really do need to get out more, it would be foolhardy in the extreme to discount what I have here.   There are people I’ve never met in person with whom I feel  a strong personal connection.  There are also people I once knew as well as family who have faded from my life through their absence, which I regret, and hope to avoid in the future.

I blog because of my family.  I don’t know what Arthur will think of the various things I have written about his young life, when he’s older and jaded and thinks his dad is a big dork.    I’d like to think though that there is value in having this record of funny moments and strange episodes, the sort of minutiae that most people never know about.  And I blog because Julia blogs – she was the one who sucked me into this life, after all – and not a day goes by that we don’t spend some time looking over one another’s shoulder at some funny thing, or talking about something we’ve encountered in our mutual journey.

Lastly, I blog for me.  I’m not sure what kind of person I would be without this outlet, but I can’t imagine that I would be better off.   Like a lot of people, I can be anxious, I can be overanalytical, and I can be wracked with doubt.   But having the ability to express these thoughts in a relatively neutral medium can be (and is) a great source of personal strength.  And having the ability to look back on things I wrote long ago, to rethink an issue, or just to remember a good day warmly, is something I wouldn’t trade for the world.

Translation follies

This BBC News story has been making the rounds on various blogs, but in case you haven’t seen it:

Officials in Swansea, Wales, UK, emailed a translator, requesting a Welsh translation for a bilingual road sign that in English reads:

No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only.

Unfortunately, the emailed response they got was:

Nid wyf yn y swyddfa ar hyn o bryd. Anfonwch unrhyw waith i’w gyfieithu.

which apparently translates to ‘I am not in the office at the moment. Please send any work to be translated.’

Oops. (see also this example from Language Log)

The linguistic situation in Wales is fascinating due to a strong linguistic resurgence related to Welsh national identity.  Although Welsh has never been an endangered language (certain parts of it have a majority of Welsh speakers), it is spoken to widely different degrees in different regions.  But by regulation, all road signs in Wales are supposed to be bilingual, creating a huge market for translation. (This stands in direct contrast to my former home province of Quebec, where bilingual public signs are forbidden – they must be in French only).   While Swansea is relatively anglophone (only 13% of the city’s inhabitants are fluent in Welsh, according to 2001 census data), the rule applies nonetheless.  Whether bilingual public signage actually provides support for language retention is an open and very interesting question, but at the very least it reflects a changing language ideology in the region in favour of Welsh.

Another set of interesting issue around this mistranslation is raised in the comments on the Language Log post.   Bob Moore wonders, “I am left wondering who this automated reply could possibly be intended for. Since virtually all Welsh speakers also speak English, surely this person’s clients are mainly English speakers who do not speak Welsh. But those are exactly the folks who would not understand the message.”  Bill Poser suggests that it is possible that a Welsh linguistic nationalist would have a monolingual Welsh auto-reply as an expression of identity (a situation that would be quite familiar to anyone who has spent any time in Montreal).   However, a couple of other respondents point out that perhaps the auto-reply was bilingual, but that the hapless recipient took the English to be the auto-reply part of the message, and then understood the Welsh part to be the actual translation.