2,000-Year-Old Stone Inscription Is Earliest to Spell Out ‘Jerusalem’

In ancient times, a shorthand spelling was typically used

The inscription, as found on a column drum unearthed during the dig Danit Levy, Israel Antiquities Authority

Last winter, archaeologists working near the entrance of Jerusalem discovered the foundations of a Roman structure dating to the 1st century B.C. But it was the unassuming drum of a column that once supported the building that really caught their eye. As Nir Hasson reports for Haaretz, the limestone drum is etched with the oldest known inscription of the city’s name, spelled out in full.

When modern Hebrew speakers talk or write about Jerusalem, they refer to it as “Yerushalayim.” But in ancient times, a shorthand spelling was often used: “Yerushalem.” In fact, of the 660 times that Jerusalem is mentioned in the Bible, only five of them use the full spelling. So while undertaking the recent excavation, which was conducted before the planned construction of a road in the area, archaeologists were surprised to find the drum’s inscription read “Hananiah son of Dodalos of Jerusalem.”

The drum on which the inscription was found recently went on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The stone appears to have been repurposed from a building even older than the Roman structure where it was discovered. According to a statement from the museum, the inscription was written in Aramaic, a Semitic language commonly spoken by Jews of the ancient world, using Hebrew letters. This style was typical of the era when Herod the Great, a Roman-appointed king, ruled over Judea from 37 to 4 B.C., during the Second Temple Period.

“First and Second Temple period inscriptions mentioning Jerusalem are quite rare,” Yuval Baruch, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, and Ronny Reich, a professor of archaeology at Haifa University, note together in the statement. But it is the unique spelling of Jerusalem that really makes the stone special. The full version of the city’s name has been found on just one other artifact from the Second Temple Period: a coin dating between 66 and 70 A.D., a period of Jewish revolt against the Romans.

Archaeologists don’t know who Hananiah son of Dodalos was, though they have a theory about his occupation. “Hananiah” was a common name in ancient Israel, but “Dodalos” was an unusual one. According to Laura Geggel of Live Science, experts think the name might be a modification of “Daedalus,” the craftsman of Greek mythology. Perhaps Hananiah and his father, then, were craftsmen.

The area where the stone inscription was found certainly seems to suggest as much. Located near what is now Jerusalem’s International Convention Center, the site was once home to the “largest ancient pottery production site in the region of Jerusalem,” according to Danit Levy, one of the archaeologists who has been leading excavations in the area, in the museum statement . Ruins pointing to an extensive pottery operation—kilns, water cisterns, pools for preparing clay, work spaces for drying and storing vessels—have been discovered across the site.

This potter’s quarter was active for three centuries. During Herod’s reign, production seems to have been focused on cooking vessels, and activity at the site continued on a smaller scale following the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. By the early 2nd century A.D., the workshop appears to have been taken over by a Roman legion for the mass production of ceramic vessels like pipes, roof tiles and bricks. Archaeologists also discovered tableware and cooking utensils that are “typical of the Roman army,” according to the museum statement.

Of course, experts can’t say for sure where the column drum originally came from, or whether it was sourced from a site near the potter’s quarter. Other questions—like why Hananiah son of Dodalos emphasized his place of residence in the inscription, and spelled "Jerusalem" in an atypical way—only add to the mystery of this curious artifact.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.