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Stray Thought on Khirbet Qeiyafa Ostracon

January 8, 2010

With the recent press release from University of Haifa (and Haaretz’s subsequent article) it seems that the internet is a again flutter with discussion of the Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon. Recent penetrating posts include Doug Mangum’s at Biblia Hebraica and Bob Cargill (see also the older post by John Hobbins over at Ancient Hebrew Poetry). What I find most fascinating is the Qeiyafa Ostracon Chronicle over at the dig’s official site. The timeline it reconstructs screams to me the question: would such effort have been expended on a stray inscription from another culture?

Now, I don’t mean to downplay the significance of this text. The ostracon (pot shard to layfolk) is amazingly important. It pushes back on recent trends in biblical studies to date texts later and later. It shows a Hebrew dialect early and hints at legal ideas found in biblical law. And lets not forget that I’m trained in Northwest Semitic inscriptions and epigraphy. This is is my shtick.

And yet, I think of the host of unread cuneiform tablets sitting in museums around the world for want of scholarly time, and I wonder if maybe some of us could be spending more time on them than these five lines scratch on the inside of a pot.

  1. January 8, 2010 1:51 pm

    Yep. And how about presenting the already published Sumerian and Akkadian corpora in bilingual editions, normalized Sumerian and Akkadian on one page, English on the other, commentary following, and qualified interaction with the relevant primary and secondary literatures?

    Yes, I know Alan Lenzi and others are trying to make a dent in this sense. If I had anything to say about it, I would give him an annual NEH grant of several million dollars until the job got done.

    Part of the problem is that the “hard sciences” are supplanting the humanities in terms of “world-making.” Here’s a relevant recent post:

    • January 8, 2010 6:42 pm

      Of course, the overarching issue is the consumptionist model of education that currently seems to rule the academy.

      In these situations, I tend to think of Jean Bottéro’s essay “In Defense of Useless Science” in Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning and the Gods. It might not change the funding issues, but it at least helps me make sense of the incongruities.

  2. January 8, 2010 2:11 pm

    I agree with you. However, 99% of the Sumerian and Akkadian stuff sitting around untranslated is probably has even less sizzle and pop than this inscription–I should know; I translated about 70 Sumerian texts that were sitting around unread in a museum collection and unless you love sheep and goat transfers they weren’t that exciting…

    • January 8, 2010 6:37 pm

      Good point. But while it might not have sizzle, you can’t begin to do historical research without such data. The good historian is the one who can take such quotidian information and use it to construct an image of the past.

  3. January 11, 2010 2:18 am

    About half of the witnesses for our new edition of Ludlul come from unpublished school texts, fragments, and other random bits. One never knows what’s sitting in those dusty drawers in the museums.

    But I agree with you, Jim, even while nodding at Charles’ comments: there are WAY too many people pontificating about these few lines that have importance, yes, but not THAT much importance. It’s tiresome. As I’ve said in a few places now, the field of biblical studies is incredibly starved for new evidence; anything is a big deal.

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