Academic article on controversial 3,200-year-old ‘curse tablet’ fails to sway experts
Year after team hails bombshell discovery of oldest Hebrew writing in Israel, details of the find hit a peer-reviewed journal. But some academics don’t see any inscription at all
In March 2022, a team of archaeologists made an astonishing announcement: they had discovered a tiny 3,200-year-old folded-lead tablet inscribed with what could be the oldest known Hebrew writing ever found in Israel, while sifting through decades-old debris from an excavation near Nablus.
The archaeologists, led by Dr. Scott Stripling of the Bible Seminary in Texas, believe the 2 x 2 centimeter (.8 x .8 inch) tablet proves that Israelites were literate when they entered the Holy Land and therefore could have written the Bible as some of the events took place. They also claim the tablet holds the earliest known writing of “Yahweh,” or the divine name of God.
More than a year after the finding was first announced through popular media, archaeologists published an academic article about the controversial “curse tablet” in the peer-reviewed journal Heritage Science.
Despite the article’s long-awaited publication on Friday, the few experts who agreed to speak with The Times of Israel on the record expressed doubt as to the conclusions of the discovery.
The small, folded tablet was discovered in 2019 on Mount Ebal near biblical Shechem, in a pile of discarded dirt and debris from excavations carried out in the 1980s. Mount Ebal is known from Deuteronomy 11:29 as a place of curses, and the debris pile was from an area believed by some archaeologists to be an altar.
After Stripling first announced the discovery to the public in a March 2022 press conference, the find was immediately decried by a swath of archaeologists — both for the archaeologists’ conclusions and for the fact that they bucked academic norms by announcing the find to the media before publishing an article in a peer-reviewed journal.
Peers before publishing
Stripling has said, both now and in a Times of Israel podcast last March, that he decided to go to the media because he was worried that other researchers might try to claim credit for his team’s discovery.
“I had released photos of the outside of the tablet not knowing there was writing on the inside as well,” said Stripling, who showed them to friends and published photos on his social media accounts. “It was my fault. Once those photos were out, people started to decipher letters on the outside. So because of that, we had the press conference because we had to stake out that this is our inscription, academically.”
Stripling said he would “absolutely not” make the same decision in the future.
“I would definitely wait until we have the academic publication out,” he said. “This was an exception because I released those photos on the outside not knowing there was writing on the inside.”
In December, Israeli archaeologists published an open letter decrying colleagues who publish findings in mass media prior to the peer review process.
The statement was written as a general “researchers’ creed” — without naming any specific colleague — and called for well-supported research that is published in peer-reviewed, scientific journals. Prof. Gershom Galil acknowledged at the time he was likely the intended recipient for his work into curses, including the Mount Ebal tablet, though he chalked it up to “bitter” and “jealous” colleagues.
Galil’s research into other curse tablets, including the Jerusalem Stone, a 3,500-year-old inscription which would be one of the earliest inscriptions ever discovered in Jerusalem, has also been questioned. That finding was also announced to the media prior to publishing in a peer-reviewed journal.
One of the major concerns raised by other archaeologists was that following the announcement, Stripling and Galil declined to share high-resolution photos from the scans of the curse tablet, which would have allowed other archaeologists to weigh in on their authenticity.
The article published on Friday included multiple photos of the scans, though many looked indecipherable to the untrained eye.
“We’ve had many months to study those scans, so when someone looks at them for the first time, it may take time for their eyes to acclimate, and we did our best to point this out in the article,” said Stripling.
Multiple archaeologists and epigraphical experts approached by The Times of Israel declined to go on the record about the article’s publication, but two who agreed to speak said they did not believe the article had made a convincing case.
“The published images reveal some striations in the lead and some indentations (lead is, of course, quite soft and so such things are understandable), but there are no actual discernible letters,” Prof. Christopher Rollston, an expert in Northwest Semitic languages and the chair of the department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at George Washington University, wrote in an email. “This article is basically a text-book case of the Rorschach Test, and the authors of this article have projected upon a piece of lead the things they want it to say.”
Rollston added that he would have been thrilled with the discovery of an inscription with a curse or the word Yahweh, but he does not believe this is the case. He was very suspicious of the discovery when it was first announced and was not convinced by the peer-reviewed publication.
“Facts are facts, and this article is very short on facts and very long on boundless speculation,” Rollston said. “The ‘readings’ in this article are basically a chimera.”
“I don’t accept all the interpretations that were suggested in the article, and I plan to publish a different opinion in an academic journal,” said Bar Ilan University Prof. Aren Maeir, declining to elaborate further. Meir published the open letter criticizing the announcement of findings in the media prior to academic review on his blog last December.
Stripling said he knows other archaeologists may have different interpretations.
“They can argue it’s a resh instead of a vav, because some are clear, some are not,” Stripling said. “We expect a healthy exchange of ideas.”
He noted that the journal had a difficult time locating peer reviewers who had expertise in the wide range of subjects needed to understand the article, which required a knowledge of ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Latin scripts, among other areas of expertise.
“There’s the tomographic science scanning, there’s the archaeological process, and the epigraphic process, so the journal struggled to find peer reviewers that even had that expertise because there’s not that many people,” Stripling said.
Cursed, cursed, cursed
At the center of the controversy is a small, folded piece of lead, which, based on a reading by epigrapher Galil, Stripling claims is inscribed with at least 40 proto-alphabetic letters, the ancestor of the earliest forms of written Hebrew. The lead itself is too brittle to unfold, so experts used tomographical scanning to photograph the inside of the tablet by using X-ray waves to create a series of images that show different layers of the object. The technique is also used in medicine to take images of the body, in a process called computational tomography, or a CT scan.
Stripling and Galil worked with researchers at the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic to scan the tablet. They believe the tablet is inscribed with the phrase: “Cursed, cursed, cursed – cursed by the God YHW./ You will die cursed./ Cursed you will surely die./ Cursed by YHW – cursed, cursed, cursed.”
The epigraphical experts who worked on the tablet — Galil and Pieter Gert van der Veen, an associate professor of Levantine Archaeology at the Johannes Gutenberg-University of Mainz, Germany — date the tablet to the Late Bronze Age (circa 1200 BCE) based on the style of the lettering. They identified 40 different letters on the tablet.
If correct, this would make the tablet the first use of the name of God in the Land of Israel and would prove that Israelites were literate hundreds of years earlier than previously believed.
“It’s potentially a huge breakthrough for us on several levels, historically, archaeologically, epigraphically, and theologically,” Stripling said. “Do we have evidence of a much earlier presence of Israel than we’ve had proof of in the past? Many of us believe that Israel was already there at the end of the Late Bronze Age, but we haven’t had absolute proof. So if we’re correct with the reading, then the ramifications are really large.”
Stripling said that analysis of the lead in the tablet matched with a lead mine in Greece that was used in the Late Bronze Age, and that a separate article with a more in-depth lead analysis will be published at a later date.
Writing on the walls
Public trust in epigraphical analysis, or dating objects based on the style of the handwriting, is currently at a low point after the Israeli Antiquities Authority announced a highly publicized discovery of a pottery sherd inscribed with the name of Darius I earlier this year.
The inscription on the potsherd said “Year 24 of Darius” in such accurate ancient Aramaic that it fooled all of the IAA’s top epigraphers, or inscription experts, who believed the sherd was a 2,500-year-old receipt of goods.
It was later revealed to be an authentic sherd that was inscribed by a visiting professor as an example for her students — and then forgotten on the site.
“We believed it was real, so that’s how we were investigating it,” Gideon Avni, the chief archaeologist of the IAA, said in March. “This was a lesson, not just for the Israel Antiquities Authority, but for everyone in this field. Now we’re going to be a lot more careful.”
Because the Mount Ebal tablet is folded and too brittle to open, it’s impossible to examine other aspects that could further authenticate the inscription. Stripling said it is the fact that they can’t open the tablet that guarantees the inscription’s authenticity. However, other researchers expressed disbelief that there actually is an inscription at all.
“The images make it clear that there are no discernible letters on this piece of crumpled lead,” said Rollston. “And again, the authors’ drawing of the letters bears no real similarity to what is present in the images.”
A curse tablet from the mount of curses
The curse tablet was discovered in earth and debris originally removed from a cultic site at Mount Ebal, near biblical Shechem and today’s Nablus. Mount Ebal appears in Deuteronomy 11:29 as a place of “curses” and is revered by some Christians and Jews as the place where the biblical Joshua built an altar as commanded in Deuteronomy 27. It is described in Joshua 8:31 as “an altar of unhewn stones, upon which no man had lifted up any iron.”
The site known is known by locals as “Al-Burnat,” or “top hat” in Arabic, and is regarded by archaeologists as an exceedingly rare and significant illustration of early Israelite settlement. It is the only one of its type in the area. A consensus of archaeologists date the clearly cultic site to the early Iron Age, somewhere around the 11th century BCE, or when the Israelites evidently began to settle the land of Canaan. Other archaeologists push that date back to the 12th century or Late Bronze Age.
The late University of Haifa professor Adam Zertal excavated the site in the 1980s, including what he identified as a large rectangular altar that was apparently constructed over an earlier round altar. Stripling said the tablet came from earth originally excavated from this round altar.
If the tablet’s inscription is verified, it would make the text centuries older than the previous record-holder for the oldest Hebrew text in Israel and 500 years older than the previously attested use of the tetragrammaton YHWH, according to Galil. Writing in a similar alphabet was discovered in the Sinai Peninsula dating to the beginning of the 16th century BCE.
“This is a text you find only every 1,000 years,” Galil said in the announcement of the tablet’s discovery last year.
In addition to the difficulty in reading the tablet, another challenge is that the tablet was not discovered “in-situ” while trained archaeologists carefully dug in layers and recorded their findings. Rather, it was found during a 2019 re-examination of earth from a dump pile formed during Zertal’s excavations.
The earth removed from the 1980s excavation had been dry-sifted at the time. In 2019, Stripling’s team resifted the pile using a wet sifting technique that was developed at the Temple Mount Sifting Project, where Stripling once worked. Stripling also heads ongoing excavations at biblical Shiloh, between Nablus and Ramallah.
“[The publication] is a big relief. I’ve published many articles and many books, but this was the most complex process,” Stripling said. “We got good feedback along the way, and we think that what we’ve presented is, to the best of our knowledge and the best of our abilities, what we think that the inscription says. Now the rest of the academic community can see and agree or disagree.”
Amanda Borschel-Dan contributed to this report
Update: Subsequent to the publication of this article, epigrapher Peter van der Veen, one of the authors of the Heritage Science journal article, wrote a post on Facebook lifting the curtain on some of the more controversial claims made by Galil.
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