The Moabite Stone (also called the Mesha Stele) is a 3.7ft by 2.2ft basalt stone, which contains 34 lines of ancient Moabite script in the Moabite language. Sometimes called the old Hebrew Script, it is written in a language that is very similar to Hebrew, but with some noticeable differences. Thus, it is best understood in the evolution of the West Semitic family of languages from Canaanite–Phoenician–Moabite–Ammonite–Edomite–Hebrew.1 It is often dated to sometime after 849 BCE according to the reference to Mesha, the King of Moab, which is found in 2 Kings 3:4. However, “since the text of the stela points to a date toward the end of the king’s reign, it seems probable that it should be placed between 840 and 820 BCE.”2
The backstory to the discovery of the Moabite Stone is quite a fascinating account. On August 19th 1868,3 Frederick Augustus Klein (F. A. Klein), an Anglican medical missionary in Jerusalem, was made aware of the stone. Accompanied by the son of a famous Arab tribal sheikh, named Zattam, who provided protection for the duration of a trip, Klein undertook a journey—as he often did—to provide medical aid to both Jews and Arabs. This included a community of Bedouins on the east side of the Dead Sea at “an encampment about ten minutes from the ruins”4 of Dibon.5
In the course of his trip, while drinking coffee in the tent of the community’s tribal sheikh, Zattam informed Klein of “a most interesting stone with an ancient inscription on it, which no one had ever been able to decipher.”6 In fact, according to the tribal sheikh, “no Frank [i.e., a synonym for a western European] had yet seen” it,7 and thus “as a mark of honor”8 or favor to the bodyguard traveling with him, the tribal sheikh offered to show Klein the stone.
When Klein first saw the stone it was lying with its inscription facing upward. Thus, he made a hand drawing of the stone and copied a few of the characters from the inscription in order “to ascertain the language of the inscription, and prevail on some friends of science to obtain either a complete copy of the inscription, or, better, the monument itself.”9 Afterwards, an initial oral agreement was negotiated to purchase the stone for four-hundred dollars (now equivalent to about $7000). An agreement was assumed to be reached, so Klein returned to Jerusalem to secure the funding.
Klein began with the consulate of the German-Prussian government in Jerusalem, who was already funding his medical missionary work. The consul himself, Julius Heinrich Petermann, had been an associate professor of Oriental philology at the University of Berlin, and thus Klein discerned that he likely “took great interest in archaeology researches.”10 After studying the sketch and the characters from the inscription, Klein’s keen acumen was justified when Petermann decided that it warranted contacting the Berlin museum to elicit funding for the purchase. The museum promptly decided that they wanted to acquire the stone. However, rather than Klein returning to purchase the stone by himself, they (i.e., Klein, Petermann, and Berlin Museum officials) sought out a local Bedouin to make the purchase for them. Unfortunately, this decision alerted the tribal sheikh to the stone’s importance, and thus, he raised the price tenfold ($400–$4000, $4000 now equivalent to $70,000).
Of course, the heightened publicity meant that Klein and Petermann were unable to keep the discovery secret, and thus news of the stone eventually reached Sir Charles Warren of the British Palestine Exploration Fund; and Charles Clermont-Ganneau—who had received some training in Oriental studies, and afterwards worked as an interpreter at the French consulate in Jerusalem.
Warren initially decided that he would not intrude upon the already-in-progress German attempts to acquire the stone. However, Ganneau sent an Arab to look at the stone and sketch some of the characters. After determining from the sketch its value for posterity, another man (i.e., named Ya‘qub Karavaca) was sent to make a mold (called a squeeze) of the stone, “but his wet paper tore into several pieces when he left hastily, fearing for his life when a quarrel erupted among the Bedouins.”11
Petermann—who was still attempting to secure funding back in Jerusalem—for whatever reason, eventually requested help from the Ottoman authorities. Particularly, the governor of Nablus (close to biblical Shechem) and the Mudir of Al-Sult (the local Turkish governor)—who in an attempted to seize the stone, put pressure upon the Bedouins. However, the community of Bedouins loathed the local governor of Al-Sult so much “that sooner than give it up they had put a fire under it and thrown cold water on it, and so broken it, and had then distributed the bits among the different families, to place in the granaries and act as blessings upon the corn, for they say that without the stone (or its equivalent in hard cash) a blight will fall upon their crops.”12 Soon afterwards, Petermann departed Jerusalem and the German-Prussian consulate gave up on their attempts to acquire the stone.
In November 1869, upon his return to Jerusalem from Lebanon, Warren was met by a Bedouin Adwan tribesman, who inform him of the broken stone’s existence and “as a proof produced a piece of it”— a piece that remained in Warren’s possession.13 Thus, Warren sent him away with some squeeze paper. In January 1870, the Bedouin returned “with two excellent squeezes of the two large fragments of the broken stone, and also with some small pieces, twelve in number, with a letter or two on each.”14 Likewise, these pieces remained in Warren’s possession. Upon the Bedouin’s return from making squeezes, Warren was informed that the remaining pieces were going to the highest bidder. Thus, over the next few years, both Warren and Ganneau were able to purchase many of the broken pieces. In all, Ganneau, with financial help from the French consulate was able to purchase three large fragments and a multitude smaller ones—thirty-eight in all.15 Likewise, Warren with financial help from the British Palestine Exploration Fund, was able to acquire an additional eighteen fragments.16 In all, fifty-seven fragments were gained and “approximately two-thirds of the original inscription was reconstructed, although it contained many gaps running through individual letters and even whole words.”17
In 1873, Ganneau turned his fragments over to the Louvre in Paris. Likewise, in 1874, the British Palestine Exploration Fund turned over Warren’s fragments to the Louvre. When all these fragments as well as the acquired squeezes were combined, Ganneau was able to restore the stone to its current condition as seen on exhibit in Paris under the classification: AO 5066. About two-thirds of the exhibit is comprised of the acquired fragments, but the remaining one-third has been constructed with plaster and has been restored from the acquired squeezes.
1 According to Christopher Rollston, it was “arguably Israel’s hegemony [that] hindered fuller development of a distinct Moabite script.” See Christopher A. Rollston, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel: Epigraphic Evidence from the Iron Age (Atlanta, GA: SBL, 2010), 54.
2 James Pritchard, “The Moabite Stone” in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 320–21.
3 F. A. Klein, “The Original Discovery of the Moabite Stone” in Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement 2.6 (March 31 to June 30, 1870): 281.
5 Dibon is located about fifty miles south of Amman, thirteen miles east of the Dead Sea, and three miles north of the Arnon River, which are all in Jordan.
6 Ibid., 281.
7 Ibid., 282.
10 Ibid., 283.
11 Eric H. Cline, Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009), 17–18.
12 Charles Warren, “The Moabite Stone: Captain Warren’s First Account of the Inscription from Moab” in Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement 2.5 (Jan 1 to March 31, 1870): 170.
13 Ibid., 180.
14 Ibid., 181.
15 Charles Clermont-Ganneau, “La stèle de Dhiban ou stèle de Mesa roi de Moab 896 av. J.-C., Lettres a M. le Cte de Vogue” in Revue Archéologique (1870): 184–386.
16 Warren, “The Moabite Stone,” 180–82.
17 Cline, Biblical Archaeology, 18.