Ysteriousmay esselvay

Archaeologists working at Mount Zion in Israel have uncovered a stone vessel (dated between 37 BCE and 70 CE by archaeological association) bearing a cryptic script. The vessel, which is around 13 cm high, bears ten lines of writing scratched into the stone, but the inscription, which appears to be a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic (we are not told on what grounds), but has not yet been deciphered.

Now that’s interesting. Let’s think about that for a minute. The article claims that “the cup’s script appears to be a secret code, written in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic, the two written languages used in Jerusalem at the time”. Both Hebrew and Aramaic are well-understood scripts that represent well-understood languages. So what on earth is going on here?

We don’t have a transcription at all, and I’ve been unable to find any further information yet, but what I suspect is going on is that some of the characters on the vessel are in Hebrew script, and others in Aramaic script, but that the translation of these doesn’t yet reveal a meaningful interpretation in either the Hebrew or Aramaic languages. It’s possible that the inscription records a third language (oh, let’s say … Phrygian, just to be obscure yet controversial), or that it is some sort of linguistic code (think ‘Pig Aramaic’, if you will) or even a substitution cipher. We just don’t know what the language is yet – and that’s really the most likely way we could get a text like this in two well-known scripts that we can’t read.

This is often a problem in media reporting in paleography and epigraphy – no distinction is made between the writing system (script) and the language of the inscription. The good news is that the research team is “sharing pictures of the cup with experts on the writing of the period. The researchers also plan to post detailed photos of the cup and its inscriptions online soon.” Now that’s going to make progress a lot faster.

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2 Comments

  1. I’m in battle with you all the way against the conflation of script and language, but I fear the media are only the beginning of the problem. It’s not just the media and it’s not only in paleography and epigraphy. As this NYT blog post (which I once pointlessly fulminated against) quotes, even many so-called experts can’t get their heads around the difference between a writing system and a language.

    But not to despair! Keep up the good fight.

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