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Bible-Era Mystery Vessel Found -- Code Stumps Experts

Andrew Curry
for National Geographic News
September 9, 2009
 
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 at Charlotte.

"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 (interactive time line of early Christianity).

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.

Among the dig's other finds are ruins spanning the time of the founding of King Solomon's Temple, around 970 B.C., to the destruction of Jerusalem by Christian crusaders in A.D. 1099.

Pure Mystery

Aside from the inscription, the cup—which was found in three fragments—isn't unusual, archaeologists say. Such stone mugs were popular among Jews at the time, thanks to purity rules.

Like people who keep kosher today, Jews in Jesus's day followed a complex code when it came to food and drink.

According to tradition, a pottery cup that had been contaminated by contact with a forbidden food had to be broken and discarded.

But "according to Jewish law, stone cannot become ritually impure," said archaeologist Jodi Magness, an expert on daily life in biblical Jerusalem.

"In the long run, if you're observing purity laws, it's cost-effective to use stone vessels," said Magness, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

It was likely especially cost-effective in Jerusalem. The city was a center for the production of the stone vessels, crafted from a soft, chalky rock common to the region.

Scholars are divided on what the vessels—usually hand-carved and crude, resembling beer mugs—were used for. For one thing, they're awkward for drinking.

"Personally," study leader Gibson said, "I believe these were used for ritual purification of hands before a meal."

Coded Inscription

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.

"They wrote it intending it to be cryptic," Gibson said.

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.

"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."
 

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