Saturday, September 12, 2009

Mysterious Jerusalem Cup Found

Gotta love popular media reports on archaeological discoveries. The archaeologists present their speculations without nuance as fact when they, in fact, know nothing for certain about what this cup was for or what's written on it. The commentary in brackets is mine.

Bible-Era Mystery Vessel Found -- Code Stumps Experts

It didn't look like much at first, just a broken, mud-caked stone mug.

But when archaeologists in Jerusalem cleaned the 2,000-year-old vessel, they discovered ten lines of mysterious script.

"These were common stone mugs that appear in all Jewish households" of the time, said lead excavator Shimon Gibson of the University of North Carolina.

"But this is the first time an inscription has been found on a stone vessel" of this type.

Deciphering the writing could provide a window into daily life or religious ritual in Jerusalem around the time of Jesus Christ. [Common stone mug. Why assume it had a religious function?]

Working on historic Mount Zion—site of King David's tomb and the Last Supper—the archaeologists found the cup near a ritual pool this summer. The dig site is in what had been an elite residential area near the palace of King Herod the Great, who ruled Israel shortly before the birth of Jesus.

From the objects that surrounded it, Gibson determined 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.


What sets the newfound cup apart is its inscription, which is still sharply etched but so far impossible to understand.

Similar to intentionally enigmatic writing in the Dead Sea Scrolls, 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. [Are there texts written in code in the DSS? I don't think the veiled historical allusions with code names in the pesharim count. Also, since when were Hebrew and Aramaic the only two written languages used in Jerusalem in the 1st century CE?]

"They wrote it intending it to be cryptic," Gibson said. [How does he know what they intended? Maybe it's a previously unknown script. Maybe they had messy hand-writing.]

In hopes the script can be deciphered, Gibson's 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.

One thing the team is sure of, though, is that whoever inscribed the cup had something big in mind—and didn't want just anyone to know. [What if it doesn't say anything at all? What if the "writing" is just decorative symbols?]

"They 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." [The instructions wouldn't be very effective written in code. Incantations or curses are more likely, if it says anything at all. Maybe it's an incantation mug. Like incantation bowls, only on a mug.]

Via Agade


  1. Unbelievably uninformative sensationalist puff piece. For shame NGS!

  2. I always have to chuckle at the speculation that surrounds something just because it's new or unusual. The answers in most of life's mysteries tend to be pretty mundane.

    For example: Engraving instructor to apprentice, "You technique needs a lot of work but I'm not going to waste good materials on you. Here, practice on this cheap stone mug."