Idumean Ostraca, volume 1

Thoughts on Textbook of Aramaic Ostraca from Idumea, Vol. 1 by Bezalel Porten and Ada Yardeni (Eisenbrauns, 2014)


Thirty years ago or so, large numbers of unprovenanced Aramaic ostraca from southern Israel began to appear on the antiquities market and were quickly snatched up by the usual rich collectors. Many of these have been published, largely by A. Lemaire. Many have been loaned to museums. Many remain unpublished. Many (published from photographs) can no longer be located. In short, a typical mess caused first and foremost by the ability of site raiders to sell their wares to antiquities dealers who, in turn, can demand substantial prices from collectors who, in turn, enhance the value of their investments by getting certain scholars to publish their holdings. All this is well known and its ramifications repeatedly pondered by museums and scholarly societies and journals for many years now. It is not a problem with an easy solution, neither for museums nor for scholars tempted to participate in the publications. Of collectors, the less said the better.

The corpus of material in question here, from the second half of the 4th century BCE, has come to be known as the Idumean ostraca, a corpus of somewhere around 2,000 ostraca apparently from ancient Makkedah, modern Khirbet el-Kom. The great majority of the documents are brief “commodity chits,” mostly dealing with the delivery of grain. It is with this group of documents that Bezalel Porten and Ada Yardeni have chosen to begin their publication series of this material with what is an amazingly detailed and handsome volume.

Over 400 such chits are published in the first volume of what is clearly meant to be an extensive series. Herewith a typical example (A5.9 p. 235):

ב19 לסיון שנת 3
קוסלנצר לבני יוכל
למסכנת מנקדה
שך 9 ס 10

The last line of which is to be understood as abbreviations for:
שׁערן כורן 9 סאת 10


on the 19th of Sivan year 3 (of Artaxerxes III)
PN1 of the sons of PN2
to the storehouse of Makkedah
9 kor, 10 seah of barley

Each text is presented in photograph and hand drawing, transcription and translation, and notes where necessary. There are no indices, but a companion CD is included containing extensive tables of cataloguing material and a tri-color KWIC for the entire corpus. Various charts and tables provide detailed comparative analysis as to date, commodity, payer, payee, and prosopographic studies.

This volume has clearly been prepared with an enormous amount of commitment and effort over a substantial number of years. One might wish that the authors had seen fit to begin their publication with the potentially more interesting documents, i.e. letters and accounts for, frankly, the material in volume 1, for all of the hard work devoted to it, is worth only a single glance for most readers of this blog. The few new words found in the corpus have been known since the initial publications, and I am not at all sure exactly what we are meant to learn from these texts about the society and culture of Idumea at the end of Achaemenid times. Perhaps the most important information here in this respect is to be gleaned by the personal names and the nature of Arabisms in the names and in the vocabulary.

Eisenbrauns is to be praised for producing such a handsome yet complicated volume, especially given the number of color photographs and complicated charts and tables involved (although some of the graphics in the introductory material are more than just a bit ugly I’m afraid). Whether or not a major publisher in our field should publish such a study of unprovenanced material in the first place is a different matter.

I shall leave it to the readers of this blog to provide guidance to the following conundrum: If Porten and Yardeni provide us with an electronic copy of the texts in their new volumes as they are published, should the material be added to the CAL online database? (Previously published materials are available in files 20357 and 20358!) We are certainly not going to type in the data by hand.

One thought on “Idumean Ostraca, volume 1”

  1. Steve Kaufman Post Author

    Prof. Porten, pleading ignorance of how to add a comment to a post, emails me the following comment:

    if you’d have read on into the commentary, you’d have seen that we have new interpretations of several key words: ראש and נשיף and דקיר. as an aramaist, you should have something to say on those interpretations. also like to hear what you have to say on פחלץ and משתל. there’s a table of macedonian rulers of vital interest for historians (Table 5; see bottom of page xix). i thank you for all your positive statements


    (sak now:) However, my statement re the vocabulary remains correct. The CAL has had notes on these words since the earlier publications and discussions, especially Porten/Yardeni’s own publication in EI 29(2009).

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