We all get a bit ticked off when someone else uses our favourite coffee mug. But for the Jews in ancient Jerusalem, keeping their best cups sacred was apparently a matter of the gravest importance.
A stone drinking receptacle dating from around the time of Jesus Christ, found recently on historic Mount Zion, has shed light on strict religious ritual when it came to mugs in Biblical times. It bears tens lines of strange script scratched into its side, which while not yet deciphered are nevertheless believed to indicate that the cup wasnt to be casually used by just anybody.
The mug, found broken up into three fragments, dates from some time between 37 BC and AD 70 when the Romans nearly destroyed Jerusalem after the Jewish revolt. It was discovered by archaeologists digging in the remains of an elite neighbourhood that once stood near the palace of King Herod the Great (who lived from 74 BC to 4 BC). The same team recently found a stone nearby, also engraved with mysterious markings. The script looks like its written in a kind of secret code, combining the two languages used in Jerusalem at the time Hebrew and Aramaic.
They wrote it intending it to be cryptic, said Shimon Gibson of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte one of the lead excavators on the dig speaking to National Geographic. Clearly the cup bore some enigmatic meaning which similar to, say, the writing in the Dead Sea Scrolls was intended to be understood only by certain specific individuals. They could be instructions on how to use [the cup], which could have incantations or curses, he continued. Its not going to be something mundane like a shopping list.
Cups of the time that came into contact with forbidden foodstuffs had to be smashed up and disposed of, according to strict Jewish purity laws on eating and drinking. This one was very practically made out of stone. According to Jewish law, stone cannot become ritually impure, explained archaeologist Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill an expert on daily life in biblical Jerusalem also talking to National Geographic. In the long run, if youre observing purity laws, its cost-effective to use stone vessels.
Such mugs are very commonly found in the area. However, this one is unique. This is the first time an inscription has been found on a stone vessel of this type, commented Gibson. Hes been circulating images of the artefact as widely as possible among experts on writing from the period, and also hopes to get as many pictures as possible online in the hope of it being spotted by someone who can interpret the text.
Were welcoming suggestions too. Serious ones only please.