Friday, November 02, 2007


ANCIENT METAL MELTING






SINAI INSCRIPTION 351


This is a very interesting and important inscription from the entrance to turquoise mine L at Serabit el-Khadim. It has a drawing of the Egyptian god Ptah., the patron of craftsmen; he is depicted standing in a shrine, and holding a sceptre. We may surmise that the text will have some reference to craftsmanship.

The photograph provided shows a break, though the stone was not in that state when it was first discovered, and a photograph taken by Petrie is also available (Sass, fig. 38). Remember that there was a whole series of such stelas found on the ground, but they were originally on the rock-face. The drawing I have offered here is not entirely accurate, but indicates the characters I think are there.

A good place to start would be the left column, because we can detect a familiar sequence there: 'beloved of Ba`alat'. At the bottom we can see `ayin-L-T. At the top we can find M, then the horns of an ox and the snout ('alep), then the arms and head of the jubilater, though the body and legs are not easy to trace (H). We may safely assume that the space below had two houses, representing BB (note the square B next to `LT in the right column). It all adds up to produce: M'HB B`LT, 'beloved of Ba`alat'.

So, who or what was under the guardianship of the goddess? We would expect to find the answer in the other line of writing. At the top we can detect Dh [=], 'this'. Identification of the next letter is crucial, and we should set it aside for a moment. Moving down the column we meet a very clear B (square); Sh (not obvious, but that is what we find in the corresponding sequence on 353, 360, 361); N (snake); M; Sh (fractured by the break, but clear on Petrie's photograph); N; Ss (tied bag); B; W (hook); Tt [+o], a sign we have not encountered previously. Briefly, my interpretation of this is NSsB WTt, 'prefect of the expedition'. WTt would be a transcription of the Egyptian word for 'expedition', found in the Egyptian inscriptions at the mining site. NSsB corresponds to Hebrew nis.ab, meaning foreman or prefect; the term is also found in 350, and in the plural form with -n, in 346 and 349, RB NSsBN 'chief of the prefects'.
Many scholars have taken this word to be NQBN 'miners' (root nqb, 'bore'), and this is a very seductive opinion, but I think the tied bag is Ss, not Q.

Returning to the second character in column 1: the common choice for this is T, and the Sh is understood as Th (from *thann, 'a compositie bow', whereas I invoke shimsh, 'sun', sun-serpent hieroglyph, with sun-disk omitted). Ironically, the resulting sequence is interpreted as DhT BThN, 'the one of the serpent' ('the Serpent Lady'), the goddess depicted holding snakes. However, there is no T [+]. Those who see T only have T (not +, the top stroke is lacking), and there are three vertical strokes descending from it, not one. I presume that the one on the left is part of the M in column 2. The remaining two strokes would be fingers, and the whole character (including the cross-bar) would be a hand, and therefore K. Viewed upside down it is _V_ and thus a perfect K!

The resultant sequence KBShN coincides with a Hebrew word for 'furnace' or 'kiln' (kibshan). This would fit the context admirably, since metal-melting equipment (crucibles, bellows, casting moulds for tools) has been found in Mine L. Also, the following MSh could be related to Hebrew m's and mss, meaning 'melt' (Arabic massa, 'dissolve'), and so KBShN MSh would signify 'melt-furnace'. Presumably the 'melt' qualification distinguishes the kibshan as a furnace, not a kiln for pottery.

Unfortunately, every time I encounter this sequence, I have to argue (you have heard the expression 'special pleading', but I don't know what it means) that we are looking at K not T.

The meaning of the inscription emerges thus:

This is the metal-melting furnace of the prefect of the expedition, which is beloved of Ba`alat



SINAI INSCRIPTION 353


Looking again at Sinai 353 (which has a similar sequence of signs in column 1) in the bottom left corner, in the word KNSh ('gather'), we find a K that is the same (though on a different slant and inverted) as the example on 351 above. A third of the way down the middle line, again in the word KNSh, a somewhat different type of K stands out. In the column on the right, which definitely says Dh KBShNMSh MHB`LT ('This melt-furnace is beloved of Ba'alat'), the K is not distinct, though it is not a cross like the T at the bottom. I suggest it is the same as the one on 351: a horizontal bar with an inverted V hanging from it.

SINAI INSCRIPTIONS 360 & 361


Turning now to a pair of related inscriptions, which apparently have the KBShN MSh sequence: 361 (on the right side of the photograph, left side of the drawing) was engraved on the rock face near the entrance to Mine N; 360 was on a stone slab near Mine K, and close to 367 (the stone marking the water reservoir). Inscription 361 is clearer, so we will examine it first. I know the picture is murky, but a magnifying glass helps with all the photographs I provide (most are from Butin's publications). On the left (not shown on the drawing) is a large letter that could be K (hand with fingers), followed by B (a square house), Sh (the sun-serpent), and N (snake, below Sh). This gives us KBShN, and there is possibly M[Sh] down below K.


On the right hand side of the stela (360), focusing on the letters in the middle of the column of writing, we can find (with patience and persistence, on better reproductions than I have provided here) BShNMSh, preceded by a simple T [+], Dh [=], and a sign that is commonly transcribed as T, but we know it must be K! I suspect that the same scribe has engraved both inscriptions (360, 361), and I wish he had written more words, to help us to distinguish his T and K. My suggestion is that we are looking at a simplified hand with its middle digit and little finger pointing to the left, and the thumb pointing upward. So we have KBShN MSh, 'melt furnace', but the expected MHB B`LT is not obvious (there is a possible B to the left of MSh), but the stone has suffered severe weather-damage (and exposure to the water of the reservoir?).

At the top of the column (with comparative assistance from 361), we detect Dh, Sh, Hh, 'alep (ox-head, slightly indistinct), T, Z, and then KBShN MSh.

Regarding the Hh (H.), we have already encountered this letter in the bottom left corner of 353 (see the photograph above). There it was a square house with a round courtyard; here it is comprised of two squares, the upper one of these being divided into two; on 361 the corresponding letter (standing out clearly above a large square B) has the bisected square at the bottom. All three represent a stylish mansion, as distinct from a simple house, and the word hhassir (court, mansion) provides the sound Hh. Another example is found on the rock at Mine G (see 380, below); it has the shape H), that is, two rooms and a semicircular courtyard. It is obviously the character that became Roman H, by the loss of some of its walls, but people will try to tell you that it is a form of B (house), even when there is a clear square B below it (as on all three of these inscriptions).

The combination ShHh produces a word known in Hebrew and Aramaic, meaning 'pit' or 'ditch', from the root sh-w-hh, 'sink down'. This presumably refers to the mine in each case: 361 was at the entrance of Mine N, and 360 would relate to Mine K (though it was found 150 metres from the mine).

The next word 't could be: 'you' ('thou'); 'a sign' (even meaning a letter of the alphabet); 'he came'; or 'together with'. If we can allow Dh (dhu) to function as a demonstrative adjective, giving 'this pit', rather than as a pronoun, saying 'this (is) a pit', then we get this result:

"This pit, together with this melt-furnace, is beloved of Ba`alat".
Or going further: "This pit and this melt-furnace are together beloved of Ba`alat".

We find much the same on the right hand side of 361. It commences with Dh ShHh, 'this pit', but the K is missing for the -BShN MSh, which is all quite clear on the photograph. Those who constantly seek 'the serpent lady' (DhT BThN, 'the one of the serpent') find the missing DhT to the left of HhB. But is it T or K? To make it K we can invoke a faint line pointing NW, which Gordon Hamilton (2006, 361) includes in his drawing (but is merely a smudge on the reproduction above, as is the stroke needed to complete the T [+]). Again I will plump for a stylized hand (not a cross) with a wrist, two fingers, and a thumb.

There is space above the Dh for ' T, as on 360, but it is not visible; there are possible horns of the ox, and also perhaps a P (mouth) above Dh, which could supply pa, 'and'. Beneath the K we can see MH, the beginning of the familiar formula, but a piece of the text has been lost.

My reading would thus be:
"This pit (and) this melt-furnace are beloved of Ba`alat".

SINAI INSCRIPTION 380

Now, we turn to a new inscription, first published by Benjamin Sass as Sinai 380 (Sass 1988, 40; and Fig. 99, 100 [Mine G], 103-5 [inscription]). His two photgraphs, taken at different times of day, are not clear, except to clairvoyants. Émile Puech (2002, plates 2 and 3, reproduced below, numbering the inscription 387) offers a better photograph, and a copy of a squeeze (estampage). My drawing attempts to find the main details, but Puech says that I have overlooked a number of letters; his drawing (on his Fig. 1.2) has twice as many as mine. Considerable guesswork is required to recreate the whole text, but here is its context. This inscription is above the entrance to Mine G, and a collection of metallurgical equipment was found on the roof of the mine, near the writing. Thus it would not be surprising to find metal-melting mentioned in the text.



My view of the letters sees two lines: one runs from right to left, the other from top to bottom. If we start with the letters on the far right, we can see 'aleph (ox) and Hh. A word that would fit neatly into this setting is 'ah., 'brazier' (as in Jeremiah 36:22-23, "the fire of the brazier"); it is said to be a loanword from Egyptian, which also fits into the general scenario of West Asians working for the Pharaoh.

Below the 'brazier', running in the same direction, is the word B`LT, 'the Lady'. Putting these two sequences together we have "Brazier of Ba`alat". If there is a Dh ( = ) to the left of the Hh, then this would strengthen the connection between the two words, affirming that the brazier belongs to Ba`alat, and therefore it should not be touched. This would serve the same purpose as the cautionary expression "beloved of Ba`alat" found in the other inscriptions under consideration here. Émile Puech claims that M'HB`LT runs from left to right along the bottom. but this is hard to find (note that the estampage has 3 centimetres missing from that section of the rock).

From what we have seen in the previous four inscriptions, which mention a 'melt-furnace' (351, 353, 360, 361), my expectation is that the vertical column of signs will say KBShNMSh. Certainly, to the left of the T we can find the snake for N and and below it the wave-sign (with three peaks) for M. Above the N is the other snake-sign, Sh, representing the serpent on the sun; another Sh is not really discernible below the M, but the stone may have been worn away by weather here. Above the Sh of -ShNM[Sh] the photograph seems to show a snake (N), not a house (B); but there are sufficient lines at this point to construct a box. Above this is a round character, which might be a fish (with no fins), hence Samek; but if it is K it would be a hand, and this one would be showing its palm.

SINAI INSCRIPTION 350 & 352

We now return to Mine L and confront two damaged and difficult inscriptions, 350 and 352.


The sequence NSsB can be seen at the bottom of 350, presumably referring to the prefect again. The 'N at the top could be the first person pronoun, saying 'I am' (a variation on 'This is ...", as in inscription 356), followed by KBShN ('furnace'), with ownership attributed to the prefect (or 'the house of the prefect', if the reading BT Sh can be sustained). The next column has 'HB near the top, and presumably the phrase 'beloved of Ba`alat' was there.

Regarding 352, I have inserted the fragment 366 into its left side, producing M'HB'LT. Gordon Hamilton (2006, 345, n. 7) is extremely dubious; but if that is not the right missing piece then there must be one just like it among the rock debris in front of Mine L. My guess is that there is a K (hand) obliterated in the worn section below the very clear M at the top of column 3; this would produce the word MK, meaning 'mine' (as in 354 and 379).

Here is a photograph of 352, issued by W.M.F. Petrie, with a drawing by Herbert Huffmon, published by W.F. Albright, modified by Benjamin Sass to include the large fish which Albright had excluded.


For the other two columns, I see 'Sh (top right), which could be 'fire', and its owners follow as BN KR 'sons of the furnace' (an expression we heard with reference to Asa 'the smith' on the sphinx statuette, 345). Incidentally, the R can look very rough at first glance (as a small head on a thick neck), but quite stylish if the top is seen as the hair and the rest as the face looking leftwards. Then comes the fish, two or three snakes, another K (with two lines below it, possibly a mouth, standing for P). My drawing tries to find a box in the bottom corner rather than a snake, and beneath the fish `LT (to produce Ba`alat, with the B above the fish); but it seems safer to follow the drawing above, with two or more cases of N. We already know that these inscriptions can meander, even though they have columns and lines to follow; examples: 365, back and front; 346, side, where the two snakes of NSsBN ('prefects') are put together under the other letters. Accordingly, if we arrange the letters in the order NSKN, we have 'pourers', another word for smiths. If the two parallel lines were not P but Dh, they could define their role as 'pourers of copper', with the N functioning as a rebus: the sounds of NHhSh ('snake') standing for NHhSh 'copper' (which has a final T in Phoenician and Hebrew, but not in Arabic, but there could possibly be a T near the fish).

Similarly, the ' Sh and the MSh at the top of the stela might form a unit as 'the melt-fire' (the fire used in the furnace for melting the metal).

Below the break, column 2 has: L Sh T L B, and then the fish. LShT might mean 'for the the Lady' (or 'the pit')' LB could say 'for the house' (B as a logogram, standing for the word for 'house'), possibly meaning the temple on the site. Perhaps the writer intended the `LT to be used for B`LT in both columns, hence 'for the Lady, for Ba`alat'.

My basic assumption is that the Canaanite miners and metal-workers of successive expeditions, had put up their own particular signs on this mine (L). This would explain the repetition in the various stelas engraved on the rock.

SINAI INSCRIPTION 349

This is another inscription on the rock face at the entrance to Mine L. The text begins at the top, with a clear ox-head, followed by a snake and a cross, giving the word 'NT, 'unutu, 'equipment', as in the the garden equipment inscription on the wall inside Mine L (357).

[1] This (Dh) is the equipment ('NT) of (Sh) [2] the chief of the prefects (RB NSsBN) ... [3] apparatus (`RK) ....

Notice the K, which is an upraised hand, pictorial not a stick-figure. In the remaining lines, too many of the letters have been obscured. The apparatus would be for the mining and metalworking, presumably.


The new letter was Tt, and it is the Egyptian sign for 'goodness' and 'beauty', and with the Semitic word t.ab ('good') it yields the sound Tt.

For a discussion of all the proto-alphabetic letters and their relation to Egyptian hieroglyphs, go to Alphabet and Hieroglyphs.

For more details about the inscriptions examined here, refer to:
Brian E. Colless, The proto-alphabetic inscriptions of Sinai, Abr-Nahrain/Ancient Near Eastern Studies 28 (1990) 1-52 (available from Peeters website).






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