Archaeologists Reveal Oldest Inscription in Jerusalem: A Canaanite Curse

Brought to you by the letter representing the discovery of the earliest word, ‘the’: Somebody among the Jebusites really wanted the governor of Jerusalem to die

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The Jerusalem inscription, in proto-Canaanite: "Cursed, cursed, cursed."
The Jerusalem inscription, in proto-Canaanite: "Cursed, cursed, cursed."Credit: Eli Shukron and Gershon Galil
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
  • Some time in the Late Bronze Age, somebody seems to have had a beef against the governor of Jerusalem. Archaeologists have discovered a buried Canaanite temple that had been carved into the bedrock about 82 feet (25 meters) above Jerusalem’s Gihon Spring some 3,700 years ago. Inside it, they found a limestone slab that dates to a few centuries later, about 3,300 years ago.

On that slab was a curse against the governor of the city, sar ha-ir, written in 20 words of proto-Canaanite script (which is basically the same as proto-Sinaitic). The prose is beautifully preserved after all these years on the stone tablet, which measures 10.5 by 7.9 inches (26.7 by 20.8 centimeters).

“Cursed, cursed, you will surely die;

Cursed, cursed, you will surely die;

Governor of the City, you will surely die;

Cursed, you will surely die;

Cursed, you will surely die;

Cursed, you will surely die.”

(Prof. Gershon Galil’s transliteration: ARWR, ARWR, MT TMT; ARWR, ARWR, MT TMT; SR H’R, MT TMT; ARWR, MT TMT; ARWR, MT TMT; ARWR, MT TMT.)

This, a hex, is the earliest-known inscription ever found in Jerusalem. At least the thing passes for “monumental” in terms of ancient hexes, explains Prof. Gershon Galil, the head of the Institute of Biblical Studies and Ancient History, and Department of Jewish History, at the University of Haifa, who has now deciphered and interpreted it some 12 years after its initial discovery by archaeologist Eli Shukron.

The stone slab has decorated borders, and whoever did this wasn’t monkeying around with pathetic voodoo painted with charcoal ink or blood or whatever onto a piece of pottery. In this case, the hatred was literally etched in stone. “Whoever did this really wanted the governor to die,” Galil observes.

A sketch of the Jerusalem inscription by Gershon Galil.Credit: Gershon Galil

Who wished the Grim Reaper attend the governor is unknown, but a plausible possibility is political opponents, Galil suggests. That speculation is consistent with the accursed one being defined by office. If it had been his wife or kids, for instance, they might have gone to the trouble to have a limestone carved with the spell, but probably would have mentioned his name.

Also, Shukron and Galil point out, the Bible features a wealth of conflicts between city governors and their subjects.

Another point. The stone slab was clearly deliberately drilled, perforated, featuring 10 holes in a rough circle, but only on one side. The holes don’t pass through the slab so couldn’t have been used to hang the thing up. Inscriptions usually don’t have holes, so these had to have had symbolism, Galil says – a further form of wishing harm on the governor of the city of Jerusalem. The parallel that comes to his mind: needles in a voodoo doll.

The Ebal incident

The temple complex on the mountainside, above which Temple Mount was built above the Gihon Spring in the Middle Bronze Age, was about 3,700 years ago, based on the archaeological finds, according to Galil. (The slab was a bit later, about 3,300 years or the Late Bronze Age.)
Chambers were carved into the bedrock and augmented by stone brick walls. The curse slab was found in 2010 repurposed as a stone in the wall that would close up the temple for all time. Which begs a question.

Artist's rendering of the Canaanite temple in Jerusalem, partly carved into bedrock, partly built of stone.Credit: Shalom Kweller

The temple seems to have been in use for about a thousand years, so one might expect to either find a ton of curse slabs, or none, no? Why one? Well, Galil says, evidently the place was cleaned out from time to time, as one does, and this one escaped the broom. And then King Hezekiah destroyed the temple and the slab was bunged into the closing wall.

Shukron adds the topographical aspect: Unlike Megiddo, for instance, where one layer was built on the next creating a tel on the plain, this is a hillside. A slope. You try to build on a building or ruins, and everything will roll down the slope. Ten to one, there were more ancient curses at the bottom of the hill, but they have long since returned to dust or been weathered to nothing.

This one almost went the way of all curses too, Shukron says: The archaeologists did notice it bore some scratches, but nobody realized it was a proto-Canaanite inscription until Gershon Galil laid eyes on it.

Also found in the temple was a horizontal massebah. Most masseboth are called standing stones because they stand tall – ancient cultic sites are littered with them, but some were deliberately laid on their side (but no, they weren’t benches, Galil insists).
Another site clearly featuring a horizontal massebah is Atar Hapar, or “the bull site,” which is interpreted as an open-air cultic site in northern Samaria from the 13th or 12th century B.C.E. It is named for a bull figurine found there.

The chamber hewn out of bedrock, with the massebah, at the Canaanite temple in Jerusalem.Credit: Vladimir Neichin

Back to ancient Jerusalem: who wasn’t sitting on the horizontal massebah, not using it as a bench? The faithful were Canaanites – probably the Jebusites, which is the biblical name for the local Canaanites living in Jerusalem. But there are biblical references to other peoples in the city, including the Hittites who had arrived in earlier times from Anatolia. So that isn’t case closed, just case likely.

Anyway, the author of that proto-screed was actually following a practice that was or would become widespread around the Mediterranean. To wit: trying to harness supernatural powers against people you hate, in writing.

The horizontal massebah in the Canaanite temple, Jerusalem.Credit: Vladimir Neichin

Reading the text, one is reminded of another text written in proto-Sinaitic (proto-Canaanite) that was found on Mount Ebal and reported in March. In that case, the writing wasn’t scratched onto limestone but actually etched onto a lead sheet that was subsequently folded up, and could only be “seen” by tomographic scanning. The Ebal inscription, also deciphered and interpreted by Galil, read:

“Cursed, cursed, cursed – cursed by the God YHW.
You will die cursed.
Cursed you will surely die.
Cursed by YHW – cursed, cursed, cursed.”

Hmm. The Ebal inscription is also thought to date to the Late Bronze Age, specifically to the late 13th century B.C.E., Galil says. But note that there, Yahweh had entered the picture. (Its dating is based on metallurgical analysis, among other things.)

The Canaanite curse now reported from Jerusalem predates Judaism insofar as we understand the march of history, and if Galil’s interpretation is accurate, no specific deity is invoked – certainly not Yahweh. But the point is: formulaic cursing in the ancient world was evidently a thing.
The Bible itself says: “Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse. ... Thou shalt set the blessing upon Mount Gerizim, and the curse upon Mount Ebal” (Deuteronomy 11:26, 29). And, lo, a curse was found right there on Ebal, during wet-sifting in 2019.
While controversy continues to rage over the accuracy of the Ebal decipherment, Galil shares that biblical archaeologist Dr. Robert Deutsch noted on the accuracy of the newly revealed Jerusalem inscription: “The letters are very clear and the text is easy to read.”

Just to show how prevalent the practice of cursing was, we also note curses against demons in Mesopotamia, and hexes wishing sundry evil on one’s enemies that were etched onto lead tablets and tossed down wells in an ancient Greek cemetery in Athens, 2,500 years ago. Rather later, a mere 1,800 years ago, a convert to Judaism named Yaakov died and was interred in a cave at Beit She’arim, with a hex designed to deter grave robbers. And there is so much more. Based on the newly revealed discovery, Galil suggests that the later Israelites learned to hex from the Canaanites.

It bears adding that the custom in ancient Egypt had a tweak: The curses would apparently be painted onto an artifact that could be smashed, such as a clay pot, so the despised one would suffer the same fate.
Whether these curses worked or not, we do not know – though if they did, we presumably would know. Although they were probably about as useful as thoughts and prayers, or latter-day attempts to hex the moon or Joe Biden, they could presumably bring temporary emotional relief, much like railing on Reddit.

Hezekiah the cunning

Both the Jerusalem inscription and the Ebal inscription are, as said, in an extremely early form of writing that in these parts is called proto-Canaanite. More or less the same as proto-Sinaitic, it is the earliest-known alphabetic form of writing, and is postulated to have been invented by Canaanite workers in ancient Egypt who couldn’t handle the hassle of learning hieroglyphics.

“At first we thought the Ebal inscription might be earlier [than 3,200 years] because the writing was so archaic,” Galil explains.

Since the Jerusalem inscription is older, in fact proto-Canaanite would likely have been the appropriate writing form for it, he says. As for the Ebal text being done in archaic writing that had passed, perhaps that was because the author hoped that the “original” form of writing would render the text more potent. Some people still feel the King James Version of the Bible rings more movingly than modern formulations (“Thou shalt not kill…” / “Don’t murder people”).

Galil suspects the Canaanite temple in Jerusalem, only discovered in 2010, was destroyed by King Hezekiah and no other. He was the man in power in the city when the Assyrians arrived.

The supposed seal of King Hezekiah was discovered in excavation works at the southern end of the Western Wall Plaza.Credit: Uriah Tadmor

The Kingdom of Israel fell and the Kingdom of Judah shook. But Jerusalem weathered the onslaught, some think, because Hezekiah was a toady of the Assyrians. Galil suspects he was more of a mixed bag, obedient to the overlord only when out of other choices. In any case, he believes it was that king who closed it down, had it buried and built a wall over it as part of his general religious reforms.

It’s controversial, but Galil believes Hezekiah started to rule in 726 B.C.E. and lasted until 697 B.C.E., a reign of 29 years. His reform was a first stab but would leave marks – for instance at Lachish, Galil points out. At that city is a temple that some archaeologists believe was deliberately desecrated by the marauding early Jews.

Later, a more serious reform would be pursued by King Josiah, who ruled from 640 B.C.E. until 609 B.C.E. – and note in support of his Hezekiah-the-destroyer thesis that when Josiah is credited with destroying the “high places” of the pagans, this temple above the Gihon is not mentioned. Why? Because it didn’t exist any more, perchance.

A brief history of the word ‘the’

The beast whose death for which the hexer begs was “the city governor”: sar ha-ir. In Hebrew, the prefix “ha” means “the.” Which begs the question of when the definite article “the” was invented. It did not exist in Akkadian or Ugaritic, Galil contends.

This is not only the earliest inscription ever found in Jerusalem; it’s the earliest identified instance of using the indefinite article. It hadn’t been noticed in any of the other proto-Canaanite inscriptions which as we mentioned above are extremely ratty. So we don’t know when “the” was invented but here it is, in this raving Canaanite curse against the city governor of Jerusalem in the 14th or 13th century B.C.E. It may have developed earlier.
Another thing: the vowels. Today, immigrants to Israel learn to read Hebrew “with” and “without” vowels (ktiv maleh versus ktiv haser). Mater lectionis are consonants (such as vaw) that are used to indicate a vowel sound in Hebrew, Arabic and Syriac.
Today, a text may either be written with mater lectionis or without them. One or the other. But this curse has some words written with the vaw – specifically, the word “curse” (arur). The rest don’t have vowels (ktiv haser).

Which means what? It means that writing is not governed by strict rules like it is today. It also suggests that linguists are wrong to suggest that first came ktiv haser, with no use of consonants like vaw to represent vowels. It hints that scribes at the time would be governed by the practice they were taught in scribe school, whatever that might have been. Ugaritic texts are also inconsistent. And so is the Ebal text, says Galil.
In fact, the earliest texts could be written left to right, right to left, or both – they weren’t that fussy. Our pedantry for spelling and writing direction is a relatively late development, starting about 3,000 years ago. Which explains why nobody realized what the Jerusalem inscription was, if Galil is right in his interpretation, because it has a logic and order of its own – but not a type we would recognize.

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