Beth Shemesh Riddle: Wine Whine

Brian Colless

This potsherd was found  on the site of Beth Shemesh ("Sun house"), west of Jerusalem; it has early alphabetic writing on both sides;  the script is not pictorial, and most of the letters have moved away from the original shape.

It dates from the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age, around 1200 BCE.

As with all such inscriptions from "Canaan" (Palestine) we may assume that the language is "Canaanian" (that is, Proto-Hebrew, so to speak); all but one of the words in my interpretation of the text can be found in a dictionary of classical Hebrew.

Many attempts have been made to read the message inscribed on this piece of baked clay from a broken jar, and it is commonly believed that we are looking at a list of names.

In my view this is a boustrophedon inscription running vertically, as an ox ploughs a field. I have numbered the lines from 1 to 6, according to my understanding of the text. Column 1 runs down, 2 runs upwards, and so on.

The letters I discern through the dimness are:

(1) H. N N (2) N ` M G (3) L ` Z  ' H. (4) R S B ' (5) B T Y N (6) ` M ' M T

Rather than personal names, meaningful words forming sentences are what I find.

The first two words are h.nn (root  meaning: 'gracious') and n`m ('pleasant'). In fact both can be names: Hanna, Anna, John, Johanna come from h.nn;  Noam and Naomi go back to n`m. The signs are a house with a courtyard (H./Hh) and three snakes (N from nahhash 'serpent'); an eye for `ayin, and M (water symbolized by a wavy line).

The remaining character is a boomerang, G from gaml (which became Greek Gamma); as a word, g is known to mean 'voice' (Ugaritic). The three words could say:

"A nice pleasant voice" (1-2)

On the far right there are wavy lines which seem to converge into the letter M, which could be "what" (ma) or "who" (mi), which would produce"

"What is a nice pleasant voice?"

 There are apparent traces of other letters in this phantom first line (Tet? L? N?).

This is followed in column 3 by L ` Z, which has the basic meaning 'speak unintelligibly' (in a foreign language or in slurred speech). This ties in neatly with the 'voice' in line 2.

 The next possible word in the column is: ' Hh ('brother'),  the letter 'aleph (Greek Alpha) is an ox-head, here and in line 4 completely inverted and assuming the stance of Alpha. However, by adding the following R (the head at the bottom of column 4), we produce ' Hh R, 'after' (a preposition). 

Working our way up column 3 we come to a fish, I think, and this represents S (though there is a mistaken idea in circulation which has it as D, because the Hebrew word for fish is dag), Then comes B, a known version of the house (having this shape:  |Z), and finally 'Aleph.

The resulting word S B ' means "drink to satiety", and putting them all together produces:

"Slurring after carousing" (3-4)

Column 5 is barely legible, but the top letter is  B (not the same form as the one in line 4, but both are known types). Then T (a cross, signature mark, taw). The hand with its forearm is Y (Yod, yad), and finally N. Thus BTYN, a sequence which can be separated as bt yn, equivalent to Hebrew  bayit 'house' and yayin 'wine', hence 'wine tavern'. The term is found in Song of Songs 2:4: "He brought me to the wine place".  A peculiarity of the word bayit is that it can omit the preposition b 'in' (though there may be a second B lurking here, and another Y for yayin), so we have:

"in the wine bar" (5)

Line 6 runs along the bottom in fine print, and every one of its letters has appeared in the previous columns: ` M ' M T.

'M could be 'people' or 'with'; 'MT offers truth, elbows, cubits, mothers, or maidservant. The best choices in this context are 'with' and 'serving maid'.

"with a maid" (6)

 It seems to me that this is a jocular riddle about wassailing and wenching:

Q: What is a nice pleasant voice?
A: Slurring after carousing in the wine bar with a maid.

What is the significance of the dots scattered all over the place? Suggestions are: numbers of days worked by the men named, or measures of wine distributed to them; those ideas would not fit into my scheme, but they are definitely not bubbles from  sparkling wine.

Additional analysis (22 January 2014)

A newly discovered inscription, namely the Qeiyafa Ostracon, alerts us to the possibility that different forms of letters in a particular text may not be arbitrary (just scribal whims for the sake of variety) but significant (the various shapes and stances of each character represent consonant + vowel). Thus the consonantal alphabet (which requires the reader to supply the vowels) is being used as a syllabary (so that there is a different form of B for ba, bi, bu). We noticed that the B in line 4 had a different stance from the B in line 5; also the 'Aleph in lines 3 and 4. The 'Ayin in line 3 is a circle with a dot, but the one in line 2 lacks the dot. The two instances of Het (H., Hh) are not the same. And the T in line 5 has the leaning posture of TI (as found in other ostraca). This scribe has his idiosyncrasies, and extensive examination of other inscriptions (when they come to light!) will be necessary to crack the code completely.

Here is a tentative reading of the syllables:

(1) ... Ma...  (2) H.u Ni Ni (3) Na`i Mi  Gi (4) L a`a Zu  'a H.a (5) Ra  Su/a Bu 'i (6) Ba Ti Ya Ni (7) `i Mi 'a Ma Ti

For an extended discussion of the text, with references to other interpretations (by Maisler, Grimme, Yeivin, Cross, Puech, Sass), see:

Brian E. Colless, The proto-alphabetic inscriptions of Canaan, Abr-Nahrain 29 (1991) 18-66, especially 46-49. (Available as pdf  from Peeters)