December 13, 2006

Talk About Illiteracy in Antiquity

Revadim SealDo you see anything wrong with the drawing on the left? I don't, because I am looking at the Proto-Something letters l’b’, "belonging to Aba," inscribed on this seal found in an apple orchard belonging to Kibbutz Revadim in Israel. Because of its find spot, it is often referred to as the Revadim Seal. Sass, 1983:169, who drew this drawing, published it with the standing and seated figures right side up. The find spot is about three kilometers west of Tel Miqne, likely ancient Ekron of the Philistines. This seal has been dated from as early as the 12th century BCE (Cross, 17) to as recent as 7th century BCE, the latest date in the range proposed by Lemaire, 246, and just about every thing in between. Giveon, 39, who first published the seal, dated it to the 8th to 7th century BCE. Sass argued for the 10th to the 9th century BCE in 1983 (1983: 175) and 1988 (1988: 93) but in 2005 he argued (2005: 83, n. 130) for the 9th to 8th century BCE. And depending on who you want to follow, and when, the seal and its inscription are Hebrew, Phoenician, Philistine or in my view most likely, semitized Philistine. My preference is based on the most likely providence of the find. See Sass' discussion of providence in Sass, 1988: 95. Giveon provides several examples of other seals and texts with the name ’b’, "Aba," from the first millennium BCE. But for the point I want to make, it is only important that it is old and it is and that it comes from the southern Levant and it does.

What I want to focus on is what Sass noted in his 1983, 170, article,

Letters and scene neatly fill the encircled field, and despite the faulty placing of the inscription, probably due to the illiteracy of the seal-cutter, it seems certain that both were envisaged and engraved at the same time.

and repeated in his 1988, 93, book,

The four letters of the text run from right to left when the seal impression is turned upside down, perhaps as a result of the seal-cutter's illiteracy.

Sass thinks that the orientation of the "text" with respect to the figures is evidence that the seal-cutter was likely illiterate and so do I. But as I will discuss below, the real question is just how illiterate was the seal-cutter. The orientation of the text is extremely unusual; I know of no other examples (but there might be a few), in which the text is orientated in a way that makes it hard to read when the iconography is positioned in the most natural way. In case you are wondering why one would think the letters are upside down when the figures are upright, look at the Revadim Seal l, l. It would make no sense if it were rotated 180 degrees. The same is true of the Revadim Seal b, b. Taken together there can be no reasonable doubt. Cross', 13, discarded suggestion that the inscription was meant to be read vertically does not solve the problem of the relationship between the orientation of the text and the figures; such a reading would still have it 90 degrees out of phase.

So what was the seal-cutter copying? The figures were likely stock and the preposition l plus the name Aba were added to the stock figures when the seal was made. One would guess that the seal-cutter had something with the letters written on it that he or she copied onto the limestone of the seal but upside down.

How illiterate would one have to be to make this mistake? On the one hand, one would have to be unable to recognize the proper orientation of the second letter of the alphabet. In addition, the cutter who had very likely seen the l often in his career would have still not known its proper orientation. Now that is illiterate. Just for the record, there is every reason to think that the b was the second letter of the alphabet as they learned it. On the other hand, it is possible that the seal cutter made a mistake as to how the overall configuration of impression of this seal would look when in use. Remember, the impressions are mirror images of the seal itself. I think this is a more charitable understanding but it still shows a high degree of illiteracy on the part of an otherwise very skill artisan. And if a skilled seal-cutter couldn't tell which end of a b or a l was up, what does that say about the literacy of the general population at the time and place this seal was cut? For reason's that I will not go into here, I think the fact that the seal-cutter was likely illiterate is additional circumstantial evidence that the date of the seal is not much later than the 9th century BCE when I think there was beginning to be at least some literacy among professionals and craftsmen if not the general population.


Cross, Frank Moore, "An Archaic Inscribed Seal from the Valley of Aijalon", Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 168, 1962, 12-18

Giveon, Raphael, "Two New Hebrew Seals and their Iconographic Background" Palestine Exploration Quarterly, 1961, 38-9

Lemaire, Andre, "Les langues du royaume de Sam'al aux IXe-VIIIe s. av. J.-C. et leurs relations avec le royaume de Qué," Jean, Dinçol, and Durugöbül, eds, La Cilicei: espaces et pouvoirs locaux (2e millénaire av J.-C. - 4e siècle ap. J.-C), Actes de la Table ronde internationale d'Istanbul 2-5 novebmer 1999, Varia Anatolica, 13, Paris: De Boccard, 2001, 203-193 [full disclosure: I have not had opportunity to consult this work directly and my reference to it in the body of this post is apud Sass, 2005.]

Sass, Benjamin, "Revadim Seal and It's Archaic Phoenician Inscription," Anatolian Studies, 33, 1983, 169-175

Sass, Benjamin, The Genesis of the Alphabet and its Development in the Second Millennium B.C., Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1988

Sass, Benjamin, The Alphabet at the Turn of the Millennium; The West Semitic Alphabet Ca. 1150-850 BCE; The Antiquity of the Arabian, Greek and Phrygian Alphabets, Tel Aviv: Emery and Claire Yass Publications, 2005

Posted by DuaneSmith at December 13, 2006 02:54 PM | Read more on Archaeology |

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Thanks for another fascinating post. I should know but don't, can we guess how often a seal cutter like this one would work with writing. I.e. is it likely all they did was make seals or would they do predominantly other work either without letters or only right way round? I ask because mirror writing is very difficult unless like Leonardo you practice or like maybe a professional seal cutter you do a lot...

Posted by: tim bulkeley at December 14, 2006 09:24 AM

Great post Duane, that is a crazy seal!

Posted by: Charles at December 14, 2006 02:44 PM


Interesting question. I'm not sure that we can be sure of their range of activity. We do know that many seals did not have any writing on them. The whole question is compounded by the fact that there are relatively few seals from this early period (whatever this period is) with writing (,except for those with Egyptian on them). The other issue is that at this period it is not even clear which way the writing "should" go. I do think that most seals tried to make the impression look correct.


Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Posted by: Duane at December 14, 2006 07:27 PM

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