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Phoenicians in Jamaica


Brian E. Colless

Below are images of a bronze beaker which Izett Solomon (a collector of Taino objects) posted elsewhere; they are reproduced here with the owner's permission. It was purchased in Jamaica. The dealer said it was dug up 'in the bush'.

Weight approx 23 oz., height 4 1/2", width 3 15/16".










(Photographs by Izzet Solomon

Eleven detailed photographs are available at Lisa's Gallery)

It has an intriguing inscription. I am sure it is "Canaanian", that is, Phoenician (West Semitic).

The character on the right-hand end of the line is a hook (Hebrew WAW) and could represent W in the Canaanite proto-alphabet (the WS logo-consonantary) and WA in the WS logo-syllabary; it actually has the characteristic form for the syllabary [-( ]; the consonantary letter looks like a lollypop [-o ]. To the left of the hook (jumping over one sign) is a 'question mark' (a harp, TI), then a RU (head and neck of a vulture) and a NI (tusk). None of these has a counterpart in the consonantary, and so this is the syllabary. Incidentally, I have seen NI and RU in combination on four ancient lamps, and niru means 'lamp'; this has certainly confirmed the identification of these two signs, but this object is not a lamp, and NI-RU (or RU-NI) will have a different reference here.

For an introduction to this writing system, see the article on the  Canaanian syllabary.

My suggested transcription of the characters is (in accordance with my basic tables of signs, and forms of the syllabograms found on other inscriptions):

There are two short strokes [ = ] above the first character; they stand for Dh in the proto-alphabet, and apparently also occur in the syllabary as ZA. There is another pair below, longer and more widely separated, which do not seem to constitute a meaningful sign.

1 WA (wawu 'hook') as noted above.

2 NU?? (nubtu 'bee') seems to be merely a vertical stroke, but if the two strokes above the WA could be connected with it then it could be NU; notice, with the two snakes (9 and 13) the inscriber does not join up every detail (head and body), and likewise with the door (8). However, it is just possible that the presumed WA is actually the body of the bee; but the single stroke, would then be hard to identify as a sign. However it may be a shorthand  form of NU, with all the legs and appendages omitted; it could not be confused with any other sign in the system; RU, RI, NI, NA are all here and GA is a boomerang

3 TI (tibbuttu 'harp'); the usual form is more angular than rounded.

4 RU (ruhhamu 'vulture') a simplified character (also found as a picture of the bird).

5 NI (nighhatu 'tusk').

6 TA (tarashu 'wine') possibly represents a vine stand.

7 RI (riglu 'leg').

8 DA (daltu 'door') with a triangular door (like Delta), attested elsewhere, but a rectangle is normal.

9 NA (nahhashu 'snake') with a head, apparently.

10 SHA (shadu/thadu 'breast'), represents Th in the consonantary, and ultimately becomes Greek Sigma and Roman S.

11 SU (sukkatu 'booth'), a rare sign; it is not the same as 10; but the two other examples I have seen are horizontal in stance.

12 KA (kappu 'hand') usually in the form /|\ in the syllabary, and \|/ in the consonantary, but any form of hand can be used for K in the proto-alphabet.

13 NA (nahhashu 'snake'); I am inclined to take this a snake, even though it is in a different pose than sign 9, and the tick below it has to be the head, and the one above is the finger or Thumb of the hand.

14 HA (haykalu 'temple'); possibly BA (baytu 'house'), as both signs represent the ground plan of a building.

At which end does the inscription start? All the syllabic texts from Byblos run from right to left (sinistrograde). But scanning along the line in both directions, looking for possible words, 12+11 (hand + booth) produces KASU 'cup' (Akkadian kâsu, Hebrew kôs, meaning 'cup', for wine or oil,  but some objects bearing this name are more like bowls; and they are frequently made of metal). The appearance of this word is stating the obvious, but it provides welcome support for validating the system of decipherment (as did the four lamps I mentioned, which had NIRU 'lamp' included in their legends).

SHA NA (10, 9): sha is a relative pronoun; the snake may say NA, as the acrophonic syllable-sign (syllabogram) from nahhash 'snake'; or it may be a logogram (word-sign), denoting 'snake' (in any language the reader chooses, but obviously it would be West Semitic nahhash here); or it could function as a rebus ('rebogram') and represent another word (or part of a word) which sounds the same as nahhash, and in this case that would be the word for 'copper' or 'bronze'. As a sideline to this, the healing serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness (Numbers 11:9) was (in Hebrew, without the vowels) a n-hh-sh n-hh-sh-t (a snake of bronze, a bronze serpent); here the word has a final -t, but it can do without it (in Aramaic and Arabic). So, the two characters may be taken in conjunction with KASU and understood as saying "a cup made of bronze":

(14-9) "A cup (kasu) which (sha) (is made of) bronze (snake rebus, nahhash)"

HANA (14,13): if this is not BA`U ('Seek'), then hana could be the Semitic interjection, "Behold!" or "Here is ...".

Surprisingly, I can make sense of the remainder of the text only by starting at the other end.  I have seen cases of meandering lines running from different sides in Sinai inscriptions (Sinai 380, 365A, 383). In this case I think it is one hand writing the whole series of signs. The two snakes are heading from left to right. The door has its post on the right, and seems to be looking leftwards; but the vulture is looking rightwards

WA NU? (1, 2): this could be the word for 'wine'; in the West Semitic languages, w often became y, and so Hebrew has yayin 'wine', and Ugaritic has yn, as in ks yn, "a cup of wine".  I have proposed that WN on the Wadi el Hol inscription is 'wine'; and YN is found on the Beth-Shemesh ostracon.

TI RU NI TA RI DA (3-8): two verbs seem to be before us, both possibly from roots connected with wine; tarida might stem from RD 'tread', with reference to a wine-press, or 'subdue', 'rule'; tiruni could be from RN(N), 'exult' 'utter a cry of jubilation', or 'subdue' (Arabic 'daze with wine'), and used in Psalm 78:65 meaning 'overcome' with wine (miyyayin), or raising a shout from inebriation. Note that the -ni could also encompass a suffix, 'me'.

I hesitate to offer a translation, but, with the assumption that a pleasurable experience is being described, this might be the meaning:

(1-8) "Wine (wanu) inebriates (tiruni) (me) and overwhelms (tarida)".

This syllabic script was used in the Bronze Age (before 1200 BCE), and this cup would seem to bear witness to a visit by a ship from the Mediterranean some three thousand years before Christopher Columbus landed in Jamaica in 1504. Moreover, this same Phoenician ship could have proceeded to central America at the time when the Olmec people (in ancient Mexico) suddenly began to practise syllabic writing, use stamps and cylinder seals, create sophisticated ceramics, and construct pyramids with brick (as in Mesopotamia) and with stone (as in Egypt).