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Royal Steward inscription

Royal Steward inscription
Royal Steward inscription
Size160cm long, 52 cm high
WritingPhoenician or Paleo-Hebrew script
Created7th century BCE
Present locationBritish Museum, London
Identification1871,1107.1, WA 125205

The Royal Steward Inscription, known as KAI 191, is an important Proto-Hebrew inscription found in the village of Silwan outside Jerusalem in 1870. After passing through various hands, the inscription was purchased by the British Museum in 1871.[1]

The inscription is broken at the point where the tomb's owner would have been named, but biblical scholars have conjectured a connection to Shebna, on the basis of a verse in the Bible mentioning a royal steward who was admonished for building a conspicuous tomb.

It was found by Charles Simon Clermont-Ganneau, about a decade prior to the Siloam inscription, making it the first ancient Hebrew inscription found in modern times.[2] Clermont-Ganneau wrote about three decades later: "I may observe, by the way, that the discovery of these two texts was made long before that of the inscription in the tunnel, and therefore, though people in general do not seem to recognise this fact, it was the first which enabled us to behold an authentic specimen of Hebrew monumental epigraphy of the period of the Kings of Judah."[3]

The text is considered to have a "remarkable" similarity to that of the Tabnit sarcophagus from Sidon.[4]


The inscription was found on a house in the village of Silwan (see the "x" mark). This map is from the Ordnance Survey of Jerusalem, published just a few years prior to the inscription's discovery.

The inscribed lintel was found by French archaeologist, Charles Simon Clermont-Ganneau in 1870 above the entrance to a home in Silwan, a historical Palestinian village south of Jerusalem. Clermont-Ganneau first published the discovery in the Quarterly Statement of the Palestinian Exploration Fund, but with little detail:[5]

Hebrew inscription in Phoenician characters. This inscription, discovered by myself several months ago, is the only monumental text which goes back to the time of the kings of Judah. It belongs authentically, by the very position which it occupies, to the history of Jerusalem. I cannot yet publicly point out its origin, in order not to interfere with the steps taken for its preservation. I will confine myself to saying that it has probably a religious signification, as is proved by the words beit and Baal, which are very distinctly to be read.

Clermont-Ganneau arranged for the inscription to be purchased and removed by the British Museum one year after its discovery. Almost thirty years later, in 1899, he published a detailed description of the discovery.[2]

Inscription text

The limestone inscription was so severely damaged that it has not been possible to completely decipher the script. The writing is in Biblical Hebrew in the Phoenician or Paleo-Hebrew script – at the time of its discovery the script was referred to as "Phoenician letters"[3] – and can be dated to the seventh century BCE.


𐤆𐤀𐤕 [𐤒𐤁𐤅𐤓𐤕 ...]𐤉𐤄𐤅 𐤀𐤔𐤓 𐤏𐤋 𐤄𐤁𐤉𐤕. 𐤀𐤉[𐤍 𐤐𐤄] 𐤊𐤎𐤐 𐤅[𐤆]𐤄𐤁
𐤀𐤌 [𐤏𐤑𐤌𐤅𐤕𐤉𐤅 𐤅𐤏𐤑𐤌𐤅𐤕] 𐤀𐤌𐤕𐤄 𐤀𐤕𐤄. 𐤀𐤓𐤅𐤓 𐤄𐤀[𐤃𐤌] 𐤀𐤔𐤓
𐤉𐤐[𐤕𐤇] 𐤀𐤕 𐤆𐤀𐤕

Transliteration z’t [qbwrt …]yhw ’šr ‘l hbyt. ’y[n ph] ksp w[z]hb
’m [‘ṣmwtyw w‘ṣmwt] ’mth ’th. ’rwr h’[dm] ’šr
yp[tḥ] ’t z’t
Romanization Zōʾt [qəḇūrat ...]yāhū ʾăšer ʿal habayīt. ʾēy[n pō] kesef wə[zā]hāḇ
ʾīm [ʿaṣəmōtayw wəʿaṣmōt] ʿămātāhō ʿītō. ʿārūr hāʿā[dām] ʾăšer
yīp[taḥ] ʾet zōʾt
Translation This [grave ...]-iah, the royal steward. There i[s no] silver or [go]ld here
only ... [his bones and the bones] of his maidservant with him. Cursed be the m[an]
who op[ens] this

The three words "אשר על הבית" gave rise to the English translation "royal steward", although this is not a literal translation – the three words literally mean simply "over the house", i.e. the one who oversees the house. Using parallels to Biblical passages it has been variously translated "upon the house", "steward of the house" or "governor of the house".

The "maidservant" is referred to by the Hebrew ‘amatah, equivalent to the term "handmaiden" used to refer to concubines at various points in the Torah.


The royal steward or court chamberlain was a powerful figure in Ancient Judah. According to the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 22:15–16), the royal steward appointed by King Hezekiah was called Shebna and he was admonished for building himself too grandiose a tomb. Although the name of the royal steward is broken at the point where the official is named, it has been conjectured on the basis of the biblical verse that this monumental inscription originates from the tomb of Shebna.

Clermont-Ganneau speculated in 1899 that the tomb could be that of the Shebna mentioned in Isaiah, but described the idea as a "sanguine illusion".[6] In the early 1950s, the idea was suggested again by Yigael Yadin, the Israeli Army Chief of the General Staff, who was later to become an archaeologist. Nahman Avigad assessed the proposal, based upon the similarity of the text to that of the Siloam inscription and the fact that Biblical story of Shebna took place during the reign of King Hezekiah (715–687 BCE),[7] describing it as a "highly conjectural suggestion".[8]

See also


  1. ^ British Museum Collection
  2. ^ a b Avigad 1953: "The inscription discussed here is, in the words of its discoverer, the first ‘authentic specimen of Hebrew monumental epigraphy of the period of the Kings of Judah’, for it was discovered ten years before the Siloam tunnel inscription. Now, after its decipherment, we may add that it is (after the Moabite Stone and the Siloam tunnel inscription) the third longest monumental inscription in Hebrew and the first known text of a Hebrew sepulchral inscription from the pre-Exilic period."
  3. ^ a b Clermont-Ganneau, 1899, Archaeological Researches In Palestine 1873-1874, Vol 1, p.305
  4. ^ Christopher B. Hays (2010), Re-Excavating Shebna's Tomb: A New Reading of Isa 22, 15-19 in its Ancient Near Eastern Context, Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft; "The similarity of the inscription to that of Tabnit of Sidon (KAI1.13, COS2.56) is remarkable, extending even to the assertion that there are no precious metals within"
  5. ^ Clermont-Ganneau, Charles Simon (1871). "Notes on certain new discoveries at Jerusalem". Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement. Palestine exploration fund: 103. Retrieved 2022-12-18.
  6. ^ Avigad 1953, p. 139: "I hardly venture to say that I have sometimes conceived that this might be the tomb of Shebnah, or of one of his colleagues, for I fancied that I could read in the larger inscription the complete title [ ]. But it is as well to be on one's guard against these too sanguine illusions'."
  7. ^ Avigad 1953, p. 151: "…the proposed reconstruction of the mutilated name [Seban]yahu on the inscription, together with the title that follows, reminds one of the prominent Biblical figure [ ] 'Shebna who is over the House', whose tomb is mentioned in a famous prediction by Isaiah (xxii, 15-l6)… Šebnâ lived in the reign of Hezekiah, which corresponds to the date of our inscription as approximately fixed by palaeography."
  8. ^ Avigad 1953, p. 150: "The real clue to the date of the inscription lies in the name of the official, provided that he is known from the Bible. The restoration of a name ending with -yahu is, of course, a matter of guesswork, since we may assume that other officials whom the Bible does not mention also bore the title [ ] and also had names ending in -yahu. But one possible restoration, suggested by Maj.-Gen. Yadin, should be mentioned here, viz.: [ ] = [Šeban]yahû, which is the full form of the name [ ] = Šebnâ. It would be premature to draw any conclusion from a highly conjectural suggestion, but the associations evoked by this name are fascinating enough to merit a short excursus."


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Royal Steward inscription
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