Sunday, April 11, 2010

First Thought on The Qeiyafa Ostracon

The ostracon discovered in July 2008 at Khirbet Qeiyafa hints at a new direction for cultural interaction in the early Iron Age southern Levant: not only is it the longest known Proto-Canaanite inscription and the only letter we have in that script, it also suggests a literal new direction in how its writer formed its letters, and thus about how some people at that time learned to write. The direction in which it has heretofore been taken is rather older. It quickly caught the public and scholarly imagination for reasons that may not have had much to do with what is new about the text: both newspaper reports and academic statements dated it to the tenth century B.C.E. and portrayed it as the earliest Hebrew inscription. They suggested it proved that David or Solomon's kingdom existed, the historicity of both having been hotly--and polemically--debated in recent decades.

But as the text's publishers, Misgav, Garfinkel and Ganor carefully and clearly point out, the text's script is strikingly remote from that of every known Hebrew inscription. What I do not understand is why they don't point out that each decipherable word, as well as the one discernible syntactic unit, could as well be Aramaic. The issue with the script is clear. All legible letters fit well with excavated examples of the Proto-Canaanite script from the 13th-11th centuries such as the Izbet Sartah ostracon, the Qubur-el-Walaida handle, and the Zarephath and Beth-Shemesh ostraca, and shows a glaring contrast with the new Phoenician-style script of the 10th century.

As was immediately pointed out by the most experienced scholars of Proto-Canaanite: Aaron Demsky (in the Hebrew publication of the text), Allan Millard (personal communication), and Kyle McCarter (ditto), the one thing we know about its direction is that it was not written right-to-left, the direction of every known ancient Hebrew inscription from the earliest at Kuntillet 'Ajrud to the later Qumran texts. Weirdly, and intriguingly, nobody can say with complete confidence in which direction the text *was* written, since most characters assume a left-to-right stance but a few important ones suggest the text was written top-down. While the strongest indicators--the waw of lines 1 and 2 and the kaf of line 4--point to a left-to-right orientation, like Ugaritic, much Proto-Canaanite, or modern English, the alef and bet make little sense with a left-to-right orientation, and can only be easily read if the inscription was written top-to-bottom, like other Proto-Canaanite inscriptions or many of their Egyptian prototypes. The novelty of this is that it strongly suggests that the text's writer was 1) exposed to writing with both directions and 2) had no conception of a *standard*, an idea that there was a single correct way to write. Instead, he seems to have written the earliest letters of the alphabet according to one technique, and some of the others according to a second. This suggests that the writer's learning was gathered eclectically and his training casual.

But the language of the text as so far deciphered is dialectally ambiguous--a fact that you won't necessarily get if you read the reports, since they sometimes hinge on a word that might not be there. The inscription could as easily represent 1) the earliest example of Aramaic--of the portions of the text that are agreed on by each of the experienced epigraphers who have treated it (Misgav, Yardeni, Demsky, and Ahituv) all the complete identified roots עבד, מלכ, שפט, אל are found in both ancient Aramaic and Hebrew; syntactically the verbs עבד and שפט are well in place in Aramaic. Crucially, the phrase x אלתעש ends in a smudged character that could be qof, resh or less plausibly tav, each of which results in a root present in both Aramaic and Hebrew. Given the presence of this abraded but highly probable character it is unsafe to read the distinctive Southern Levantine עשי root, attested only in Hebrew and Moabite of this period. The syntax of 'al + prefix form is the standard Northwest Semitic prohibitive in this period, equally at home in Phoenician, Aramaic and Hebrew. 2) The text could be the earliest close ancestor of the dialect which would later be labeled Judean by biblical writers, and Hebrew in the postbiblical period (each label having ideological dimensions of its own). As we'll see, its appearance in this form may be equally unsettling to our assumptions about what ancient Israelites should or should not be doing with language. 3) The text could represent a previously unattested Northwest Semitic variety, like the language of the Deir Alla inscription, the main features of which preserve a stage before the split between Aramaic and Canaanite.

That is precisely why we should be excited about the aspects of this artifact that violate our presuppositions about early Iron Age language and culture: they tell us something genuinely new, and help free us from the anachronisms with which our interpretation of both the biblical text and Levantine history are encrusted. In the next installment: why the publishers' proposal to date this text to the 10th century is more subversive of a literate United Monarchy than the 12th-11th century range that epigraphy suggests. Then: crucial readings from Yardeni, Ahituv, Demsky, methodological points from Rollston, and insights from John Hobbins, Ed Cook and Doug Mangrum

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