jerusalem, mount zion

2,000-Year-Old Vessel Could Help Unravel the Mysteries of Ancient Jerusalem

September 14, 2009 03:00 PM
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
The discovery of an ancient inscribed vessel in Jerusalem could shed light on religious rituals practiced around the time of Jesus Christ.

Vessel Inscription Puzzles Scholars

A team of archaeologists from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte exploring historic Mount Zion in Jerusalem discovered a 2,000-year-old vessel inscribed with “ten lines of mysterious script” that “could provide a window into daily life or religious ritual in Jerusalem around the time of Jesus Christ,” Andrew Curry reports for National Geographic News.

The site where the vessel was discovered corresponds to a former residential area near the palace of King Herod the Great, where priests and city elites dwelled, Curry explains. Judging by the other objects found in the area, lead excavator Shimon Gibson was able to estimate “that the cup dated from some time between 37 B.C. and A.D. 70, when the Romans nearly destroyed Jerusalem after a Jewish revolt.”

According to Gibson, such limestone cups were common in Jewish households at the time, particularly in areas where priests lived. He explains, however, that these cups were usually unmarked, except for a single line of text or a name. “To have 10 lines of text is unprecedented,” he told Thomas H. Maugh II of the Los Angeles Times.

Although the inscription on the vessel is clearly etched, its meaning remains a mystery. As Maugh wrote for the Times, “the text is in an informal cursive script and is apparently deliberately cryptic.” The text seems to be written in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic, and the presence of the Hebrew term for God—YHWH or Yahweh—indicates that the cup was probably used during religious rituals. Nevertheless, until the text is completely deciphered, scholars will only be able to speculate. As Gibson suggests, the inscriptions “could be instructions on how to use [the cup], could have incantations or curses. But it's not going to be something mundane like a shopping list,” National Geographic quotes him as saying.

Related Topic: Oldest Hebrew writing?

In October 2008, archeologists uncovered what may be the oldest evidence of Hebrew writing near Hirbet Qeiyafa, about 20 miles southwest of Jerusalem, marking a possibly groundbreaking discovery for both Biblical and regional history. The text, written on a shard of pottery, dates back approximately 3,000 years, predating the Dead Sea Scrolls by 1,000 years. Although archeologists have yet to decipher the meaning of the text, it contains roots of the words “slave,” “judge” and “king.” According to carbon-14 dating of olive pits discovered in the same layer of the site, the piece of pottery dates approximately between 1,000 and 975 B.C.—the era of David’s rule of Jerusalem.


Most Recent Beyond The Headlines