ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 147

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One critic says artifact could have been a fishing weight

New academic articles heap fresh doubt on Mount Ebal ‘curse tablet’ interpretation

Archaeologist who claimed lead object bears earliest written tetragrammaton, or name of God, stands by assertion in face of three-pronged attack

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

A photo of the outside of the Mount Ebal curse tablet (courtesy Pieter Gert van der Veen)
A photo of the outside of the Mount Ebal curse tablet (courtesy Pieter Gert van der Veen)

Three peer-reviewed academic articles were published this week that attempt to cast doubt on the authenticity of the controversial Mount Ebal “curse tablet,” a small lead artifact sensationally revealed to the world last year and purporting to contain the earliest known writing of the tetragrammaton, or “YHWH,” God’s divine name in Hebrew.

These findings have been heavily disputed. The new articles are the latest salvo in what has become an ongoing academic and archaeological debate that touches on some of the fundamental issues of biblical archaeology in the Land of Israel.

The main point of contention relates to the nature of the object: a tiny lead tablet folded in upon itself. A team of scholars led by Dr. Scott Stripling of the Bible Seminary in Texas, a veteran archaeologist and author who has led digs at Shiloh and elsewhere in the Holy Land, assert that the tablet contains proto-Hebrew script in both the inside folds and on the outside.

Detractors claim that the soft metal object is simply dented and marred, and no script can be discerned from the released photographs or images.

“They haven’t provided the evidence for it. I will be happy to change my mind, but they haven’t provided the evidence, and until they do, we have to base [our opinion] on what is published,” Dr. Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University, a co-author of one of the new papers, told The Times of Israel.

The level of documentation Stripling and his team have provided is “below par,” Maeir said. He noted that it was very unusual to have three articles published “back to back” rebutting an archaeological find.

“I know other people who feel very strongly about this. All kinds of elaborate claims which are not scientifically proven can easily become common knowledge, and people assume all the archaeologists agree,” he said.

A line drawing of some of the letters found through the tomographical scan of the Mount Ebal tablet. (courtesy Pieter Gert van der Veen)

If the proposed 3,200-year-old “curse tablet” does contain Hebrew writing, it would be the oldest known found in Israel, pushing back the accepted date of Israelite literacy by some 500 years. It could also indicate that the Israelites entered the Land of Canaan hundreds of years before it is commonly held that they did so.

It could also indicate that the Israelites were already literate at that time, meaning they could have written parts of the Bible when the depicted events were taking place, instead of generations later, as is commonly accepted among scholars.

Maeir asserted that in the case of the “curse tablet,” ideological and religious beliefs could be trumping scientific accuracy. Stripling, “a very conservative Baptist,” has a record of making “statements that are iffy from an archaeological point of view” in an attempt to “prove aspects of how he sees and understands the biblical text,” he said.

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 as a place of curses, and the debris pile was from an area believed by some archaeologists to be an altar.

In the Book of Joshua, the Israelite leader builds an altar on Mount Ebal, the Law of Moses is carved into the stones, and offerings, blessings and curses are made there.

The discovery of the tablet was announced in a press conference in March 2022 by a team of scholars led by Stripling, which also included epigraphical experts Dr. Gershon Galil, a biblical studies expert from the University of Haifa, and Pieter Gert van der Veen of the Johannes Gutenberg-University of Mainz, Germany, who were responsible for interpreting the text.

A drawing by Professor Gershom Galil depicts the possible letters in an inscription from the tomographical scan that shows the inside of the Mount Ebal tablet. (courtesy Pieter Gert van der Veen)

The tablet is too brittle to unfold, so the scholars used advanced CT scanning to reveal what they say is the following text on the inside: “Cursed, cursed, cursed – cursed by the God YHW./ You will die cursed./ Cursed you will surely die./ Cursed by YHW – cursed, cursed, cursed.”

An analysis and high-resolution image of the purported text on the outside of the tablet has yet to be produced.

An unorthodox launch

The original announcement itself was unorthodox, as it was simply given through media channels and a press conference, instead of via a peer-reviewed academic paper.

This was done, Stripling said then, because images of the artifact had already made their way online, and the team of scholars wanted to establish their claim as the primary researchers of the tablet.

At the time, the findings were met with general skepticism from the archaeology community because of the sensational nature of the claim, the lack of peer-reviewed evidence and the lack of high-resolution images to accompany the announcement.

More than a year later, Stripling and his team published a paper on the tablet in the peer-reviewed journal Heritage Science, complete with image scans of the object.

This, too, failed to convince many experts. The three new papers published in the Israel Exploration Journal are in response to this Heritage Science article.

The first article, “The So-Called Mount Ebal Curse Tablet: A Critical Response,” by Maeir and Dr. Christopher Rollston of George Washington University, critiques the methodology used in examining the tablet. The authors contend that the images “fail to demonstrate any discernible letters,” and express concerns about the “dating of the archaeological material,” suggesting that most conclusions in the paper “lack an empirical basis.” Maeir is an editor of the academic journal.

The second article, “The Lead Object from Mount Ebal as a Fishing-Net Sinker,” by Prof. Amihai Mazar of the Hebrew University, also fails to find clear Hebrew letters from the images accompanying the article. Mazar suggests an alternative explanation for the artifact: it could be a simple lead weight used for fishing nets, ravaged and pitted over time, and not a sacred cultic object at all.

The third and final article, “The Source of the Lead of the Mount Ebal ‘Tablet,’” by Prof. Naama Yahalom-Mack, also of the Hebrew University, traces the lead material of the “curse tablet” to Lavrion, along the eastern Greek mainland south-east of Athens. This site is known to have been in use from the fourth millennium BCE until the Roman period, indicating that “the source of the lead is inconclusive as a factor in determining the secure date of this artifact.”

Taken together, the three articles represent a concentrated effort to debunk the findings around the “curse tablet.”

“This is not unexpected, people have different opinions. I respect all of these scholars and consider them friends and colleagues. This is an academic disagreement, not personal,” Stripling stressed, speaking to The Times of Israel from Texas.

While he “appreciated the lead analysis,” the idea of the object as a fishing weight is “very problematic,” he asserted. The specific kind of fishing weight cited by Mazar is “not that common… There are zero examples in his article, or in Israel, of fishing weights of this type [found] inland, so if he is correct, there is no correspondence. You have zero examples of this type at any site.”

Illustrations of Late Bronze Age lead fishing weights found in Israel and Greece. Number 1 is the Mt. Ebal artifact. Illustration from the Israel Exploration Journal article ‘The Lead Object from Mount Ebal as a Fishing-Net Sinker’ by Prof. Amihai Mazar. (courtesy)

While net fishing with weights was a technique used in the Sea of Galilee at the time, Stripling added, the weights used were of a different type and have not been found anywhere else in Israel.

Furthermore, “the weights… all have grooves where the ropes go through them, but ours does not. He admits that in the article, he also says he has no idea why it’s on Mount Ebal,” he said.

“The curse tablet is a common, known thing in ancient Israel, the writing of curses on lead… from this earlier time period this is the first that has been found, and I think it’s because digs have not been wet sifted. I think if we were to do that in the dump piles we would find amazing things,” Stripling said.

Wet sifting, a technique of sifting through remains with water, was invented in the 1920s, fell out of favor, but has now experienced something of a resurgence, Stripling explained. It is an unparalleled method of finding smaller artifacts, especially when working with debris and dump piles, he said.

Dr. Scott Stripling, head of the current excavation at biblical Shiloh, exhibits a find. May 22, 2017. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

In regards to the assertion that the artifact contains various marks and not an actual proto-Hebrew script, Stripling insisted that there is indeed writing on the object.

“I am confident that there is writing on the tablet and that the script strongly suggests that it dates to the Late Bronze Age II [1400-1200 BCE]… In our article, we presented Prof. Gershon Galil’s schematic drawings and more conservative drawings by Prof. Pieter van der Veen and myself. I believe that the latter drawings come close to capturing what the tomographic [CT] scans revealed,” he wrote in a prepared rebuttal sent to The Times of Israel.

Religious basis for interpretation?

His team of scholars plan to publish another article about the outside text of the tablet, but he is unsure when that will be possible. At the moment, because of the Israel-Hamas war, he can’t even go to Israel, where he usually spends two to three months out of the year, Stripling said.

He readily admitted that he is a religious man but denies the “ridiculous assertion” that his beliefs affect the accuracy of his work as an archaeologist. “I think everyone has pre-suppositions… agnostic people have a pre-supposition to disprove. I have a PhD in ancient Near East archaeology and use cutting-edge technology. I am every bit of a scientist as someone who is an agnostic. Everyone will have their interpretations but let’s not be overly simplistic,” he said.

Prof. Aren M. Maeir at the Tell es Safi/Gath excavation, summer 2021. (courtesy)

“The whole thing is fraught with difficulties,” Maeir, from Bar-Ilan University, insisted. He noted there is also “a lot of political background noise” in regards to the artifact, because the Mount Ebal site is in the West Bank, and so “is a focus for right-wing settlers… [these theories are] proving Israel’s claim” on the territory.

“Archaeology has been used and misused for ideology, not just in Israel but throughout the world,” said Maeir. “Professional archaeologists have to work as hard as possible to distance themselves from that. They are saying there is a very clear inscription with a clear connection at a site with a clear biblical event… it adds a whole layer of imagined interpretation to the archaeological remains.

“As a serious scholar, I can’t accept that. If you want to add that, prove it! You can’t just say, here are some blurry photographs, so believe me,” said Maeir.

Melanie Lidman and Amanda Borschel-Dan contributed to this report.

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