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Tell es-Safi Ostracon Again: New Tracing and Comments (UPDATED)

21st November 2005

I have updated my previous tracing of the Tell es-Safi Ostracon based on the higher resolution images available at Dr. Stefan Jakob Wimmer’s excellent website (Wimmer is one of the team of archaeologists involved in the dig).

N.B.: I have received some crucial information about the inscription from Danny Frese who heard Dr. Maeir speak on the inscription at University of California, San Diego, last week (for more, see the interpretation section below).

Here are the (now updated) images with some tracings:

This image seems to support a slightly different reading for the first word, which becomes a bit easier to see with some magnification:

Here is an image with the contrast and brightness adjusted in order to see the inscription a bit better:

And here is a tracing:


Deciphering the first couple letters of the ostracon provide the most trouble. If you compare the three available hi-resolution images, it becomes clear that the first two (or three?) letters are somewhat problematic:

This new image originally raised some questions about my (and others) original reading: ×?לות )LVT and ולת VLT. From right to left you still find a somewhat odd aleph with the horizontal cross stroke transversing the V-strokes (kind of like the aleph at Gezer or from the plaque at Shechem). But then in this image the second letter sure appears to be a tav, as Duane Smith had pointed out. This reading raises it own problems in regards to spacing, as Chris Heard noted in the comments to my original post.

As it turns out, my original tracing was in fact correct. After his lecture, Danny Frese asked Dr. Maeir about the markings between the aleph and the lamed. In response, Maeir acknowledged that part of the inscription gave them some troubles, until they finally figured out that the vertical stroke inbetween the aleph and lamed is not a stroke at all; it’s an accumulated mineral deposit on the surface of the sherd, it just happens to be in a line and looks like a stroke. The horizontal stroke, on the other hand, is part of the aleph, it’s just a long arm. Danny also noted that this is discernable in the enhanced photos I have posted (which were better quality than the images Maeir had at his talk). A close examination (see the enlarged picture below) reveals that there is no shadow in the vertical stroke between the aleph and lamed, as there would be if it were incised. There are, however, clear shadows in the vertical portions of the aleph and the lamed. Moreover, Frese notes, there looks like a slight shadow on the bottom right hand side of the vertical stroke, whereas the shadows on the lamed and aleph are on the left side. That is to say, this part of the vertical stroke looks to me like a lump of minerals, and not an incision.

Here is an enlarged image. If you look closely you can see the shadows on the lefthand side of the inscribed aleph and lamed, but there are no shadows to the left of the verticle stroke. But, as Danny notes, there is a slight shadow to the right of the verticle stroke. Absolutely facinating!

The rest of the inscription is the same as previously noted. After the aleph you find a lamed, which instead of the almost vertical stroke with a hook to the right at the end, you find it more like a coil. This is similar to the lamed on the potsherds from Tell ed-Duweir (Lachish; dated around 1250 BCE). Following the lamed you have a vav followed by another tav. Then after the vertical stroke (on which see below), you have another vav followed by what is a very poorly inscribed lamed followed by a partial tav.

In the comments on my previous post, Ed Cook suggested the possibility that this could be some sort of invoice or the like (interpreting the vertical stroke between the two names/words as an amount of some kind with the vertical stroke being a universal symbol for the number “1″. According to Ed, “This would place the ostracon in the very large category of receipts.”

No matter how one interprets the first word, it is the second word (ולת VLT) that is argued to be connected with the Hebrew name Goliath (גלית GLYT), the questions surrounding the first word are not as significant. The connection with the first word VLT and the Hebrew GLYT “Goliath” is based on an assumed Indo-European G/V shift, the validity of which I will have to let the linguists work out.

As a side note, while I agree that referring to this ostracon as the “Goliath inscription” or the like is misleading, calling it the “‘LWT/WLT inscription” is also problematic considering the difficulty of ascertaining what letters are actually represented. I still think that the safest bet is to refer to it by where it was found, thus the “Tell es-Safi ostracon” it is!

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