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Stone Vessel with 'Priestly Inscription' Uncovered In Jerusalem

Vessel discovered near the Zion Gate may be inscibed with a 'priestly code' and the Name of G-d. Also found were snails for making 'tekhelet.'
By Hana Levi Julian and Gil Ronen
First Publish: 7/30/2009, 12:37 PM

UNC

A rare 2,000-year-old ritual vessel made of limestone and inscribed with 10 lines of text has been discovered in an excavation near the Zion Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem. It is an unprecedented find, according to Dr. Shimon Gibson, the archaeologist who heads the University of North Carolina team conducting the dig.

Inscription found on Mt. Zion. Israel news photo: UNC

"Such stone vessels were used in connection with maintaining ritual purity related to Temple worship, and they are found in abundance in areas where the priests lived," Gibson reported. "We have found a dozen or more on our site over the past three years. However, to have ten lines of text is unprecedented. One normally might find a single name inscribed, or a line or two, but this is the first text of this length ever found on such a vessel," he said.

Although the letters are clearly visible it will take some time before their meaning can be discerned due to the style of the writing. Gibson estimated in his preliminary report that it could take up to six months to translate the inscription. "It is written in a very informal cursive hand and is quite difficult to read," he explained.

Initially, Gibson thought the inscription was written solely in Aramaic. However, a group of experts consulting on the matter was not convinced; they say there is a possibility that the text contains the sacred name of G-d and is deliberately cryptic.

Ancient mikveh. Israel news photo: UNC

"Stephen Pfann, of the University of the Holy Land, is leaving open the possibility that it is Hebrew. He has also suggested that the text might have had meaning within a closed circle of priests, similar to texts at Qumran," said Dr. James D. Tabor, co-director of the dig.

The excavations, which lasted several months, were carried out under the auspices of the Jerusalem branch of the Nature and Parks Authority.

At least 30 people per week "sacrificed their own money, time, and hard labor to advance this important effort," according to Gibson, who said the results "have been simply astounding, the finds quite spectacular, and the whole area has been transformed."

He added that the excavation site was in ancient times "precisely at the center of Herodian/2nd Temple Jerusalem...we have extraordinarily well preserved ruins from the 2nd Temple period, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE."

It is that terrible holocaust that is commemorated, as well as the destruction of the First Temple, on the Fast of Tisha B'Av.

Room with two ovens. Israel news photo: UNC

Excavations began on June 14, in the same site where previous archaeologists had probed the earth searching for clues to Israel's history in the 1970s.

This time around, structures from the First and Second Temple periods were discovered, including a mikvah (ritual pool) left almost completely intact, a vault, and a room with two ovens. Buildings from the Byzantine and early Islamic periods were also uncovered, as well multiple coins, intact lamps, ceramic and glass vessels, bits of jewelry and similar items.

Tekhelet snails found?
Also uncovered were at least half a dozen Murex snail shells with holes drilled through them. "Prior to our excavation one or two such shells had been found in all of Jerusalem," Gibson said. "That so many would be found at our site further supports our supposition that we are in a priestly residential area."

Murex snail. Israel news photo: UNC

Murex snails were cultivated in ancient times at sites along the Mediterranean Sea, and a royal blue dye was extracted from them. "According to some experts this blue color was used for the priestly garments, as well as the tzitzit or threaded tassels worn by all pious Jews of the period," he explained in his report, referring to the Biblical tekhelet -- the thread of blue that G-d commanded male Jews to include in the ritual fringes on the corners of their garments. 

"Speak to the Children of Israel and bid them that they make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of each corner a thread of blue (tekhelet). And it shall be for you as a fringe, that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of G-d, and do them..." (Numbers 15:38-15:39)

Such fringes are worn by observant Jews to this day, although in most of them, the thread of blue is no longer included, since the precise technology for making the dye has been lost. However, in recent times rabbis have overseen a modern recreation of the tekhelet technique and some Jews have begun using tekhelet in their fringes again.