Observing the Ossuary

It seems clear that the inscription was cut by two people 

By Paul Flesher, Director
Religious Studies Program
University of Wyoming
February 2002

    Last week I traveled to Toronto for the Annual National meetings of the Society for Biblical Literature and the American Schools of Oriental Research. The Royal Ontario Museum had the James ossuary on display, and I spent several hours studying the ossuary and its inscription while I was there. I would like to share with you some of my observations and impressions--some of which have already appeared in various reports (including R. Altman’s on this website).

    Let me begin with the ossuary itself. The ossuary was displayed within a clear plastic box and was well-lit from above. Viewers could get right up to the plastic box, which placed their eyes approximately a foot from the ossuary itself.

    A few days before my arrival in Toronto on November 21st, the curator at the Royal Ontario Museum announced that under special conditions he could see indications of two rosettes on the back of the box (the side opposite the inscription). Rosettes are common decorations on Jewish ossuaries. When I viewed the back, I could easily see on the right side the incisions of two concentric circles, the smallest of which was about 6 inches in diameter, the second a half inch or so larger, and the remains of a third circle another half inch larger than that. (Note: All measurements are impressions only since I was not able to do any actual measuring.) There were tiny holes on the inner circle; these were spaced in a way that suggested they formed some of the points of the rosette on the circle. I could not see the lines of the rosette with my naked eye.

    On the left side of the back, it was possible to see a second vague, roundish shape --if you looked closely. I could not make out anything more than that.

    The ossuary itself is not a regular shape. It is vaguely trapezoidal, with the top of the box being wider and longer than the bottom. The box’s bottom is not flat but curves upwards at one corner. The bottom has no “feet,” which are carved onto many ossuaries. Each side has a line incised parallel to all four edges about an inch or so in from them, presumably as part of its decoration.

    The lid does not fit the ossuary, suggesting that this is not the original lid. It is a flat lid a couple of inches in thickness. The lid’s corners do not fit nicely into the box’s corners and even curve up away from them. In the display, the lid does not seem to be wide enough to go across the entire box. Indeed, it is held on top of the box by a metal frame inside it, clearly indicating its poor fit.

    The ossuary’s top is carefully carved to accommodate a lid, just not the lid accompanying the box. The two long sides and one short side were carved to have a lip (about an inch high) inside the box to hold the lid in place so that it could not slip from side to side. The other short end is carved to match the bottom of the lip so that the lid can be slid into place. This style of work seems to be designed for a heavy lid, such as a triangle-shaped one (i.e., like the simple roof of a house) carved out of a single piece of stone, for it would avoid breakage of a thin lip by a heavy stone. This seems be one of several standard ways of carving an ossuary top to accommodate a lid, for the museum had another carved in just this style.

    The side of the ossuary containing the inscription seems to have light scratches all over it. These seem to be random and follow no pattern. The end to the left of the inscription also has scratches, some of which are clearly parallel. Professor Peter Richardson of the University of Toronto suggested that one set of these scratches may form a crude drawing of a tomb.

    The bottom several inches of the ossuary on all sides shows clear signs of weathering and water damage. There are many round holes, some as big as a half-inch in diameter, where water has dissolved the limestone away. There is wear covering most of the box as well--dirt, stains, discoloring, etc. The wear appears on top of the rosettes on the back side, making them hard to see, but also indicating that the rosettes are part of the box’s original design. (Thanks to Professor Eric Meyers of Duke University for pointing out the wear.)

    The wear on the back side extends around to the front and seems to cover the second half of the inscription, while the first half of the inscription seems to be largely free from it. There is no clear end to the wear, no obvious line that has wear on one side and no wear on the other. But there seems to be wear over the final letters of the inscription while the first letters seem not to have any.

    The opening letters of the inscription stand out clearly, at least in the “lighting from above” of the ossuary display. The letters of the opening part of the inscription seem to have a “fresh-looking” character that is absent from the last couple of words. I would guess that the first part of the inscription has been extensively cleaned, although the owner, Oded Golan, says that at most his mother might have washed it with water. The letters are approximately the same height, about an inch or so. The inscription is not centered on the ossuary’s side but is placed to the right.

    The inscription divides grammatically into two parts. The first reads: Yakov son of Josef (in Aramaic, yaqwv br ywsf). The second reads: brother of Yeshua (in Aramaic, achwy dyshwa). There is no graphic division between the two parts, i.e., the second part continues from the other without any spatial break, punctuation, or other indication of separation. However, a great deal of controversy has centered on the question of whether these two parts were written by one or two hands. Since my own dialect study is neutral on this question, I studied the lettering trying to find the similarities and the differences that might indicate an answer to it. The observations I made point to two different hands.

    The letters of the inscription’s first half are cut to a uniform depth. To the naked eye, each letter seems to be evenly chiseled into the stone, and all the letters seem to be cut to the same depth. The letters also seem to be spaced the same distance apart; only the waw of Yaqwv seems to be placed too closely to the preceding letter. The letters of the first half seem to be approximately the “same” size, i.e., as if they were all cut to the same font size. They also seem to be made in the same style. This style is based on straight lines (with the exception of the samekh, of course) and square corners (where relevant)--even the final peh has square corners. It also has the formal characteristic of using wedges (kerns or serifs), which I could see on the two beths, the resh, and the upper right corner of the samekh of Ywsf (which Professor Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins University pointed out in his lecture).

    The letters of the inscription’s second part are also evenly spaced, but their size is inconsistent. The dalet, ayin, and shin appear larger than they should be, while the legs of the heth are too short. There are no wedges on any of the letters, and many of the lines are curved rather than straight. This is especially true for the ayin of Yeshua in comparison to the ayin of Yaqwv. In the photograph, this also holds true for the dalet in comparison to the earlier resh, two letters which are usually formed in the same manner. The dalet also lacks any square angles. Unfortunately, the old crack which ran from underneath the inscription around to the rosette side expanded during shipment to Toronto and the ossuary actually broke into two. The new part of the crack runs through the top of the dalet so that it can no longer be seen and also through the yod to its right.

    The letters of the inscription’s second part are not incised to an even depth. Not only are the letters of differing depths, but the incision depth can vary significantly within a single letter. The shin and the waw to its left are incised quite lightly. Indeed, parts of the shin could not be seen in the display, and as can be seen in the BAR photograph, there are some scratches near it that are almost as deep. By contrast, the ayin and the aleph are cut quite deeply, deeper even than the letters of the inscription’s first half.

    The most striking aspect of the way the second half’s letters were made is that the deeper ones are not incised to an even depth, but were cut unevenly. The main part of the aleph, for example, consists of three legs that meet. The letter’s greatest depth is where they meet, and each leg then gradually gets shallower until its end. The same can be said of the ayin’s left leg; it is deepest where it joins the other leg and gradually gets shallower the farther away from the join.

    Although I am no expert in stone work, I have done some wood work and have some experience using a chisel, and that enabled me to notice some aspects of chisel use in cutting the inscription. The contrast of the even-depth letters of the inscription’s first half with the uneven-depth letters of the second half indicates two different chisel techniques. The even depth of the inscription’s first letters is formed by holding the chisel parallel to the stone’s surface and striking the chisel straight down. The uniform depth is formed by a skilled stone cutter who can strike the chisel with the same force each time.

    By contrast, the uneven depth of the second half’s letters comes from holding the chisel at an angle so that the chisel’s corner forms a point. Thus, when the chisel is struck, the point goes in deepest and the blade cuts a line that extends from deep to shallow, as with the aleph and the ayin.

    Once we realize that the second stone cutter incised with the point/corner of the chisel, a second aspect of his technique becomes apparent, namely, many cuts are made by moving the point along the surface. This is in contrast to the letters of the inscription’s first half which are made by cutting straight down into the stone. Some letters in the inscription’s second half formed by moving the chisel point (i.e., corner) along the stone include the waw of Yshwa, which is formed by an incised hole at the top and the moving of the chisel along the stone to form its length. The bottom of the legs of both the aleph and the heth are also clearly formed in that manner; the aleph leg even has a wiggle in it that can only be produced by a moving chisel point.

    This technique also explains several mistakes that can be seen in the letters of the second half. In Ada Yardeni’s drawing of the inscription, for example, the yod of “achwy” seems to be as long as the waw next to it. But a look at the box (or at the BAR photograph) indicates that it constitutes a yod of the proper length with a gouge below it. Similarly, the leg of the dalet seems to have a gouge from its end down towards an incised hole. The yod following the dalet likewise has a long gouge from its bottom down to that same hole. These are examples where the cutter lost control of his chisel and it slipped--a problem for the “moving point” chisel technique.

    So it seems clear that the inscription was cut with two hands: the one of the inscription’s first half which held the chisel parallel to the stone surface and cut straight down and the other which held it at an angle and used the corner as a point to incise lines of uneven depth or to move along the surface.

    So what does the conclusion that the inscription was done by two people mean in terms of dating? By itself, it means simply that the two parts need to be dated separately. But that is all. The identification of two hands by itself provides no evidence as to dating of them. Dating must derive from other forms of analysis. Kyle McCarter, an eminent paleographer, says that the script style of the second part is like that of the Wadi Murabbaat from second-century Judea. On the basis of analysis of the dialect, I have suggested that late second to fourth centuries may be likely, a dating echoed by Rochelle Altman in her study of other features. Over the coming months and years, other scholars will undoubtedly bring additional criteria to the question of dating the two hands. Indeed, the question of two hands or one will itself probably continue to be a matter of debate for some time to come.  

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