Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Inscribed silver amulet found in Jordan

EPIGRAPHY: Mysterious 'Jewish spell' found in ancient amulet: Scans reveal 'magical symbols' inscribed on 1,300-year-old silver scroll (SARAH GRIFFITHS, The Daily Mail).
  • Lead amulet containing a silver scroll was found in Jerash, Jordan
  • Scientists used CT scanning and computer models to reveal scroll's text
  • Revealed it contains magical letters and a mixture of language
  • It was likely written by a 'Jewish magician', around 1,300 years ago

A silver scroll discovered hidden in an ancient amulet has revealed what appears to be a magical spell that has remained a secret for 1,300 years.

The mysterious inscription is thought to have been made by a Jewish 'magician' living in the Muslim town of Jerash in Jordan in around 750AD.

Although the silver scroll is too delicate to unfurl, CT scans of the relic have revealed 17 lines of text in an unknown language, alongside what the researchers call 'magical symbols.'

The outside lead casing was cracked and corroded, but experts managed to extract the fragile rolled silver scroll from inside it.


Some details of the discovery are given:
The Jerash amulet was discovered in 2014 among the ruins of a house destroyed by an earthquake in 749AD.

Glass bottles, ceramics, jewellery and coins were also found along with the scroll inside a small metal cylinder measuring 2-inches (5cm) long.

So it is an excavated object and presumably it can be regarded as genuine.

A sidebar gives details on the inscription:

A total of 17 lines of text were revealed using CT scans. The first line is said to consist of magical spells written in a form of Greek, while the text is written in an indecipherable form of Arabic.

According to the researchers, ancient 'magicians' were known to have made up languages, and as many people couldn't read or write, they could get away with creating nonsensical messages.

The text also contains signs which clearly are not Arabic or imitate Arabic letters.

Most of these occur in line one, but a few further signs are found in the following lines.

Leading researcher Dr Rubina Raja explained: 'We've sent it out to the world's leading philologists, and all came to the conclusion they can't read it, it must be pseudo-Arabic.

'Collectively, it has not been possible to assign these signs to a known alphabet.

'Since we presume the artefact is an amulet, and since the main text seems to be in pseudo-script, it is reasonable to view the signs as "magical".'

That sounds reasonable, although I would like to compare the signs to magical signs in things like the Greek Magical Papyri and later Arabic magical documents. The headline and one of the bullet points quoted above suggest that the text is Jewish, but later the article more cautiously states "'Since it was not possible to read the 'text' we cannot identify the religious affiliation of the amulet's owner,' the researchers wrote." I would leave it there. Even if we could read the text, late antique magic was religiously eclectic and it is frequently difficult to be sure of the religious background of a specific text.

Inscribed metal amulets are well known from antiquity. The Ketef Hinnom silver amulets with a Hebrew text found also in the Bible have been come up many times in PaleoJudaica. See here and follow the links. Other Jewish amulets made of silver and other metals are noted here. Inscribed lead curse tablets are noted here and here.

The faux-Arabic writing has an analogy in magical texts from around the same period (in Iraq rather than Jordan). Some of the Babylonian incantation bowls have similar meaningless inscriptions/squiggles meant to look like Hebrew/Aramaic writing. These have been mentioned here and here.

The text of this new amulet was recovered with some of that promising non-destructive and non-invasive technology that I keep going on about. Related stories here, here, and here and links. Cross-file under "Technology Watch."