Revisiting an inscription from the pages of BAR
Archaeologist Eli Shukron and University of Haifa professor Gershon Galil have made headlines with their announcement of a fragmentary monumental inscription that they believe mentions the biblical King Hezekiah. According to the researchers, the fragment, which was excavated in 2007 from the City of David by Shukron and Ronny Reich, contains two lines of writing, each with just a few letters written in Old Hebrew script. They reconstruct the text to include the name of the famous Judahite king, Hezekiah, and a possible reference to his achievements.
As long-time subscribers to Biblical Archaeology Review may remember, this remarkable inscription was first presented to our readers in the March/April 2009 issue. Here we share the full text of Hershel Shank’s article “A Tiny Piece of the Puzzle” which describes the inscription, its archaeology, and some fascinating suggestions for how it should be read, suggestions that may now be confirmed. You can also read the original version of the article in the BAS Library.
Ancient Jerusalem sometimes reveals itself in little bits. In this case, it is a tiny inscription with only six letters preserved.
So little remains of ancient Israel in the City of David (the 12-acre ridge where the oldest inhabited part of Jerusalem is located) because later inhabitants continually destroyed evidence of earlier occupation. Over the millennia, the stones that made up the houses, temples, and monuments of Iron Age Jerusalem were swept aside and scattered to make room for new settlements.
A few years ago, archaeologists Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron discovered a huge water pool at the southern tip of the City of David that dates to the time of Jesus. This is entirely different from the tiny pool nearby that was long thought to be the Pool of Siloam. The new pool is undoubtedly the one to which the New Testament refers when it describes the man, blind from birth, who was miraculously cured by Jesus at “the Pool of Siloam” (John 9:1–11).
The Pool of Siloam is at the outlet of another well-known monument in the City of David: Hezekiah’s Tunnel. This 1,750-foot-long tunnel begins at the Gihon Spring (ancient Jerusalem’s only flowing water source) and winds its way west and south until it debouches into the Pool of Siloam.
In 1880 some boys swimming in the tunnel discovered an inscription engraved into the wall near the southern outlet. Later vandals chiseled the inscription out of the wall. Eventually, the Ottoman authorities seized it and sent it to Istanbul. To this day, it remains one of the highlights of the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. The famous inscription, written in late-eighth-century BCE script, describes how two teams dug the tunnel from opposite ends and met in the middle. How they managed to do it remains somewhat of a puzzle. But you can still wal k through the water-filled tunnel and decide for yourself.
The tunnel brought water from the spring outside the city wall into the city as a safety measure for whenever it would be dangerous to venture outside. This was probably critical to the city’s survival when the Assyrian monarch Sennacherib besieged the city in 701 BCE.
Recently Reich and Shukron found a small piece of white limestone (5.3 x 3.7 inches [13.5 x 9.5 cm]) that adds one small, intriguing piece to the puzzle of Jerusalem in the eighth century BCE.1 It is broken on all sides and is engraved with just six paleo-Hebrew letters, the kind usedbefore the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.
Unfortunately, the stone was found in a thick fill, rather than in a stratified context. But the pottery sherds in the fill all dated to the eighth century BCE, which was the first hint of the date of the inscription on the stone.
The second hint was the shape of the six letters. They closely resemble the letters of the Siloam Inscription discovered in Hezekiah’s Tunnel. Hezekiah’s workmen dug the tunnel in the late eighth century BCE when, as adverted to earlier in this article, the Judahite king was preparing for a siege of Jerusalem by the fearsome Assyrian monarch Sennacherib—a siege that came in 701 BCE. The siege was unsuccessful, however, and Jerusalem no doubt survived in part because of the water carried into the city by the tunnel. All this is described in the Bible (2 Chronicles 32; 2 Kings 18–20), as well as in a cuneiform account in which Sennacherib boasts that he had Hezekiah imprisoned like “a bird in a cage.” But Sennacherib makes no claim to having conquered the city.
What makes the new six-letter inscription especially tantalizing is that it was part of an impressive monumental inscription, probably part of some large public building.
But what did it say? Alas, we will never know for sure. The possibilities, however, are intriguing.
The six letters are arranged in two lines. In the second line, a dot separates the second and the third letter. Dots were customarily used to divide the words of monumental inscriptions at that time. Thus, in the second line, we have two letters of one word and one letter of a second word. The three letters of the first line are all part of a single word.
The letters on the first line are qyh. This is enough to tell the excavators that it is probably part of a personal name ending in –yahu, a so-called theophoric element, referring to the personal name of the Israelite God, Yahweh. However, several names in the eighth century BCE ended this way. And several of them incorporate this three-letter sequence. The excavators refrain from expressing any preference. But one leading biblical scholar in Jerusalem told me that he was sure of what the name was:
[Hiz]qyh[w] = Hizqiyahu, or “Hezekiah” in English!
The first word in the second line includes the two letters kh. Again there are several possibilities, and the excavators express no preference. But the Bible scholar I spoke with is sure he knows:
[br]kh = beracha, or “pool” in English.
There must have been a pool at the termination of Hezekiah’s Tunnel even in the First Temple period, as there was in the Second Temple period when Jesus walked this earth, and as there has always been since then. Perhaps this fragment of a monumental inscription graced a public building erected by King Hezekiah in connection with the pool.
This little fragment of stone is only the latest evidence of a thriving metropolis at Jerusalem during the First Temple period. In an excavation in the City of David led by the late Yigal Shiloh, a fragment from a similar monumental inscription was discovered, though on a different kind of stone. Still another such inscription was found farther north in an excavation led by Benjamin Mazar and Meir Ben-Dov. Piece by tiny piece, a picture of ancient Jerusalem comes into focus.
Such fragments as these give us small bits of the puzzle, indicating what Jerusalem looked like when Solomon’s Temple still stood on the Temple Mount, today the site of the magnificent Muslim structure known as the Dome of the Rock.
Read the original article, “A Tiny Piece of the Puzzle,” by Hershel Shanks, published in the March/April 2009 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
1 See Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron, “A Fragmentary Palaeo-Hebrew Inscription from the City of David, Jerusalem,” Israel Exploration Journal 58 (2008), pp. 48–50.
Hershel Shanks (1930-2021) was the Editor of BAR and the founder of the Biblical Archaeology Society. He was a retired lawyer who still maintained his membership in the other BAR.
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