When I was little, I wanted to be Indiana Jones. I grew up on those films, and archaeology was the first profession I dreamed of. The more I watched them, the more I was drawn to some particular scenes that involve pieces of writing – looking back, it feels as though my career began when I became curious about how to become someone who could look at an ancient inscription and work out what it meant.
In the world of Indiana Jones, being able to read an inscription tends to be linked with cracking codes and solving mysteries. In some ways, that is what I do for a living now (how lucky am I?) – although not usually in life-or-death situations or while being chased by Nazis.
Last Crusade has always been my favourite of the three original films. Near the beginning, Donovan invites Indy to his study and shows him a medieval artefact that reveals the location of the Holy Grail. Or it would do if it weren’t broken. Indy rises to the challenge of sight-reading this Latin document, mumbling some of the Latin (“quisquis bibit aquam…”) before giving the translation, pondering over it as he goes. (I don’t think anything will ever change my opinion that this is what reading from an ancient inscription should look and sound like.)
If you look closely, you will see that the first bit Indy translates involves a bit of reconstruction, something epigraphists are often faced with because the inscriptions we work with are often incomplete.
He starts here, with the nearest to a full line, but the first word is half missing – even so, he can make a confident guess that this word is quisquis (“whoever”), and goes on to translate the sentence as “…who drinks the water I shall give him, says the Lord, will have a spring inside him welling up for eternal life” (with a bit more reconstruction on the next line). Later on when he finds the knight’s shield in the catacombs in Venice (see the picture of Indy and Elsa at the top of this post), he finds an identical but complete version of the text and is able to locate the resting place of the Holy Grail from the directions it gives.
This is not the first foray Indy has into trying to read an inscription, and actually in Raiders of the Lost Ark we see that he is not an expert in all ancient scripts. The medallion that he gets from Marion turns out to be the headpiece of a staff that can be used to locate the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, and it bears an inscription telling the reader how to use it. But Indy can’t read it and has to seek expert help.
The writing on this object is not really obscure at all – this is the Palaeo-Hebrew consonantal alphabet, basically the same script used for early Phoenician (and something that comes up a lot on this blog, e.g. HERE). It is very similar to what is found in early Phoenician inscriptions like the Nora stele (depicted on the left, probably 9th C BC) or the Ahiram sarcophagus. The language is Hebrew and not so difficult for an expert to interpret:
“v’amah achat m’al” “kadesh” “kabed YHWH v’hamiskhkan”
“and one amah above/more” “holy/set apart” “honour YHWH and the tabernacle”
Meanwhile the bad guys end up digging in the wrong place because they only had half the inscription, from the side that burned Toht’s hand when he led the attack at Marion’s bar.
So Indy doesn’t seem to know Hebrew then, but his Latin is good. Except in difficult situations, in which case he occasionally forgets things like the fact that in Latin the word Iehovah doesn’t begin with a J but an I.
You have to ask though, who made this booby-trapped alphabet pavement? Someone who lived during a period when the letter J existed, clearly. But if the Latin alphabet has a J by the time the pavement was created, then wouldn’t you spell Jehovah with it? Perhaps Indy’s dad missed a clue stating that the ‘word of God’ had to be spelt in the ancient rather than the medieval Latin alphabet (to be fair, the clue is just ‘verbum Dei’, as scribbled in the Grail diary).
By now you may begin to see why Indiana Jones made such an impression on my younger life. Then, when I was in my mid-20s, they released a new film, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (here is not the place for reviews, but I actually quite liked it). And lo and behold, Indy still has writing-based mysteries to solve, in this case the encrypted diary of his old friend Oxley.
Oxley apparently writes in the Koihoma language, which as I understand it was spoken in Peru, and I don’t think it would have had any relation to Mayan. So when Indy says he’ll “walk it through Mayan” to try to understand it, I always cringe a little – this isn’t quite the decipherment process I grew to love in the earlier films. Perhaps Oxley had combined different languages and systems in his code, but I can’t really make out the signs and don’t know these languages/scripts well enough to tell.
But what I will never forget is that when I watched this scene with my mum at the time, she leaned over to me and said “That’s what you do!” So I suppose I did grow up to be Indiana Jones after all.
~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)
The pictures in this post are all in the copyright of Lucasfilm. This is a homage to the Indiana Jones films and no infringement of rights is intended.
7 thoughts on “Indiana Jones and the Ancient Inscriptions”
I absolutely love the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles! They’re incredibly fascinating and they do the historical research right, so you really get a snapshot of the culture and language too, of each place he visited! Really cool read! https://historyisfascinating.wordpress.com/
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Thank you! I loved Young Indy too, such a fantastic series.
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I’m not that keen on the Staff-head transcription from the Wiki. The way it treats Ws, Ḥs, Qs and Šs is inconsistent and a bit misleading (and I think there’s a rogue k in the last word). Given the supposed date, it seems a bit overly Hebraised (is that a word?). Personally I’d go for: W ʾMH ʾḤT MʿL QDŠ KBD YHWH W HMŠKN. If we wanted to keep the vocalisation they offer, that would give: w’ ʾamah ʾaḥat mʿal qadeš kabed Yahweh wa hamiškan.
(I know you can read the Phoenician/Hebrew at least as well as I can; quibbling about transcriptions of fictional early Semitic inscriptions is just kind of the level my brain’s at at this point on a Friday afternoon.)
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Yes, I was wondering whether to make my own transcription. I’m less confident with the Hebrew language but your transcription looks right to me. I thought the transcription given might have come from production notes so just quoted what I found on the Wiki. It doesn’t distinguish aleph and ayin either, which I probably should at least fix! I could put your version in if you’re happy for me to add it.
You should be very proud of your talents and gifts….They are respected and admired by more people than you realize….