Excavators at Ashkelon recently found an inscribed potsherd that throws light on the little-known language and script of the Philistines in the seventh century B.C.E. It was dug out of debris of the destruction level left by Babylonian forces after their attack on the city in 604 B.C.E. The inscription is on the weathered body sherd of an Iron Age II jar with red slip and burnishing. The text of the inscription penned on the sherd is only partially preserved—it is broken off on both sides and the ink is only faintly preserved in some words. What little we can read, however, is of no little interest:
1. ]from the (cereal) crop which you[ 2. ] … they shall pay to[ 3. ] … (cereal) crop of S|apan-[Divine Name?]
The ostracon appears to be an agreement for the purchase or delivery of grain. The word ‘b(w)r is rather rare in Biblical Hebrew, but it also appears in Middle Hebrew, in Imperial and later Aramaic, in 065Phoenician and in Akkadian (ebuCru), with the meanings “produce (of the field),” “crop” (especially of a cereal) and “grain.” The personal name in the final line is familiar from such names as Biblical Zephaniah (spnyhw) or Phoenician S|apan-ba‘l.
According to Lawrence Stager, director of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon, the ostracon was found associated with a dozen or so cuboid weights, a scale balance and storage jars containing the charred remains of grain, especially wheat. These might well be the remains of a grain storage area and its “office” and records.
Of more interest to the epigraphist than the rather banal content of the ostracon is the script in which it is inscribed. In the Persian remains of the city of Ashkelon, the considerable number of ostraca found have been inscribed in Phoenician and (in lesser degree) in Aramaic scripts. The script of this ostracon from the late Philistine stratum before the city’s fall to Nebuchadrezzar is neither Phoenician nor Aramaic. It stands very close to Hebrew, and is obviously derived from Hebrew. It also shares many traits with Edomite, a script also derived from Hebrew. However, it shows distinctive typological characteristics and must be given its own name as a local or national script.
I have been inclined to call it Hebreo-Philistine to underline its affinities with Hebrew, and to save the simple term “Philistine” for an older script, presumably a script with Aegean affinities like the Deir ‘Allaµ clay tablets. Professor Stager has suggested “Neo-Philistine.” This label would have the advantage of following the practice of naming national scripts without hyphenated names denoting their origins. We do not speak of Hebreo-Edomite, Hebreo-Moabite, Aramaeo-Nabataean or Aramaeo-Ammonite but simply of Edomite, Moabite, Nabataean or Ammonite. So I shall call the script Neo-Philistine.
Joseph Naveh in an important essay, “Writing and Scripts in Seventh-Century B.C.E. Philistia: The New Evidence from Tell Jemmeh” (Israel Exploration Journal 35 , pp. 8–21), collects a number of texts stemming from Philistine sites, or having peculiarities in common with texts whose provenience is clearly Philistine. He proposes that the script of these texts be termed Philistine. Noting, however, that these texts are not homogeneous, he suggests that the chancelleries of the great Philistine city-states may have had slightly differing styles comparable to the situation in Trans-Jordan with Ammonite, Moabite and Edomite.
The fact that the Philistine script and orthography of this period stem from Hebrew—and not Phoenician—is surprising. It points to a period of strong Israelite cultural influence on—and most likely political domination of—the Philistines. The era of the United Monarchy of David and Solomon provides the appropriate context for the borrowing. This is the period when, according to Biblical accounts, Israel exercised hegemony over the Philistine city-states.
We hope that future seasons at Ashkelon will furnish more inscriptions in “Neo-Philistine,” and that our knowledge of the Philistine script and language will increase in sophistication from its present sketchy state.