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Summer Fieldwork: Robert Hoyland on Inscriptions in the Negev

By Robert Hoyland

The land of ancient Palestine is littered with inscriptions of remarkably diverse content and written in a broad range of languages.  There have been initiatives in the past that concentrated on inscriptions of a certain genre or in a specific language, but the ongoing Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palestinae, instigated in 1999 by a group of scholars headed by Hannah Cotton, professor of classics at the Hebrew University, aims to collect all such texts dating to the period from Alexander the Great to Muhammad (ca. 330 BC - 630 AD).  I have been responsible for inscriptions composed in Syriac, Christian Palestinian Aramaic and Thamudic.  The inscriptions of the latter category, which are written in an ancient Arabian tongue, were etched by nomadic pastoralists on the rocks of the Negev Desert in modern south Israel, and I will be following in their footsteps this summer and recording as many of their epigraphic remains as I can.  Many of these graffiti comprise no more than the name of their engravers, but some give us a small glimpse into their daily lives (herding, raiding, migrating, hunting, praying) and all lead us to wonder about the function of literacy among a people who might be assumed to have no need of it.

Summer Fieldwork: Robert Hoyland on Inscriptions in the Negev

Example of a Thamudic inscription from the Israeli Antiquities Authority storehouse in Bet Shemesh, Israel