Ancient inscription on jar found in Israel links kingdoms of Solomon and Sheba

A shard of pottery containing an ancient inscription.
The seven-letter inscription describes a plant commonly used to make incense. (Image credit: Daniel Vainstub)

For more than a decade, archaeologists have struggled to decipher an inscription carved into the neck of a broken jar that dates back to King Solomon's reign in ancient Israel. Now, researchers have finally revealed the mysterious message's meaning.

Based on the new interpretation, published in January in the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology (opens in new tab), the inscription was engraved using Ancient South Arabian script in Sabaean, a common language that was spoken during biblical times on the Arabian Peninsula in the kingdom of Sheba, in what is today Yemen. 

The text on the jar reads "ladanum 5," a reference to labdanum (Cistus ladanifer), an aromatic, plant-derived resin that was used to make incense, according to a Hebrew University of Jerusalem statement (opens in new tab).

The inscription is thought to be the oldest known Ancient South Arabian script found in Israel, according to the study.

Related: King Solomon's mines were abandoned and became a desert wasteland. Here's why.

The shard of pottery — which archaeologists found buried alongside portions of six other large jars during a 2012 excavation in Ophel, a section of Jerusalem — dates to the 10th century B.C. Researchers consider it a "clear connection" to the biblical kingdom of Solomon and the nearby kingdom of Sheba, according to the statement.

"The vessel is locally made, and the inscription was engraved by a Sabaean speaker holding a position related to incense," study author Daniel Vainstub (opens in new tab), an archaeologist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, told Live Science in an email. "That proves a strong relation between the two kingdoms."

Centuries ago, the kingdom of Sheba was instrumental in cultivating the plants needed to produce perfume and incense, while the kingdom of Solomon controlled the trade routes that crisscrossed the Negev desert and led to the Mediterranean ports where goods were then exported, according to the study. 

"Deciphering the inscription on this jar teaches us not only about the presence of a speaker of Sabaean in Israel during the time of King Solomon, but also about the geopolitical relations system in our region at that time — especially in light of the place where the jar was discovered, an area known for also being the administrative center during the days of King Solomon," Vainstub said in the statement. 

"This is another testament to the extensive trade and cultural ties that existed between Israel under King Solomon and the Kingdom of Sheba," he said.

Jennifer Nalewicki
Live Science contributor

Jennifer Nalewicki is a Salt Lake City-based journalist whose work has been featured in The New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, Scientific American, Popular Mechanics and more. She covers several science topics from planet Earth to paleontology and archaeology to health and culture. Prior to freelancing, Jennifer was a reporter at Interior Design Magazine, and before that she held an Editor role at Time Inc. Jennifer has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin.

  • 7%solution
    To my knowledge, there is no direct reference to the biblical Hebrew kings anywhere in archeology. There are a lot of assumptions, like the one here by referring to 1000 BCE as the Solamonian age. That's been said so many times, that it almost became a fact. The truth is, none of the biblical pre Babylonian exile events have been confirmed with archeological evidence. That gave rise to the theory the Torah was written in Babylon. Hebrew priests wanted to prevent the Israelites from being absorbed into the Babylonian society never to be heard of again. So, they assembled a book about the history of the tribes that supposedly made up the Hebrew kingdom. By giving the Israelites a fantastic past, the priests wanted to motivate the captured tribes to return to the relative wilderness of the Levant, and reclaim their lands. At the root of this alleged history is Abraham, a mythical Mesopotamian who emigrated to the Levant possibly 2 millennia earlier. After all, Genesis is basically a version of Sumer fables that were recorded over 5000 years ago, well before the alleged creation of a Hebrew kingdom. There is no evidence such a kingdom ever existed, at least not in the manner described in biblical texts. The tribal people living in that Levant region were polytheistic nomadic shepherds, who didn't build cities of stone and no rich temples. The cities referred to in the scriptures, like Jericho and Jerusalem, predate biblical events. They most certainly couldn't have been built by the tribal Israelites. For example, Jericho was destroyed and rebuilt several times throughout history. The origin of each destruction is hard to decipher, if not impossible. There's no way to single out a destructive event and link it to the biblical destruction of Jericho. Therefore, if someone wanted to claim the destruction of Jericho as the handiwork of their people, who can argue against it? The same is true with trade links of ancient tribes. We now know that trade relationships linked up tribes in a much wider area than previously assumed. Even BCE Celts were found to possess middle eastern jewelry. Far reaching trade routes were established surprisingly early in history. That makes links between Levant and Sheeba tribes interesting, but not particularly special. What would be special is if among the 1000s of Egyptian hieroglyphs found in Egypt, a single indisputable reference to the biblical Exodus was identified. We have none to date.