It wasn’t a typical summer break for UNC Charlotte professors James Tabor and Shimon Gibson. Tabor, religious studies department chair, and Gibson, an archaeologist and adjunct religious studies professor, led nearly 50 students, alumni and other volunteers in an archaeological dig in Jerusalem in June and July of 2009. During the second year of their excavation at Jerusalem’s Mount Zion, the dig team unearthed an extremely rare 2,000-year-old limestone cup inscribed with 10 lines of Aramaic or Hebrew script.
Although such ritual cups are common, especially in areas that were inhabited by priests, they are usually unmarked or bear only a single line of text, such as a name, said Gibson. "To have 10 lines of text is unprecedented," he said in announcing the find.
The inscription dates from the first century A.D. and is being deciphered by a team of epigraphic experts to determine the meaning of the text, which is clear but cryptic. The ritual cup is made that much more newsworthy due to the inscription’s mysterious nature, says Tabor. He figures it has been purposefully encoded, which adds a new level of intrigue to the purpose and meaning of the vessel.
The extraordinary nature of the ritual cup has been covered by the media internationally, including the Jerusalem Post and the Los Angeles Times. Tabor says he expects the dig to get more media coverage after the inscription is deciphered. The cup has been handed over to the The Israel Museum, where it will be put on display.
UNC Charlotte is the only U.S. university that has been given a license to dig in Jerusalem in more than 20 years.
The Mount Zion dig, co-sponsored by the religious studies department and the anthropology department, is a five-year project. Tabor hopes to complete the digging by 2012, and the team’s goal is to start developing an archaeological park in 2013, depending on funding. The park, which will be called “A Journey through Time,” will highlight the diverse and complex cultural history of the area – covering Muslim, Jewish, and Christian history.