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In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy has "the headpiece of the staff of Ra," which features writing in some language that he cannot read. He takes it to an interpreter with a big beard, who holds the headpiece up to the camera to give us a good look at the headpiece.

The scene with the interpreter is here, helpfully supplied by @BrettFromLA. But this image is better for reading the writing, found at the Indiana Jones Wiki page.

both sides of the staff of Ra's headpiece. Made of gold. Looks like a bird wit a jewel for a head

I wonder: what language is that?

The Indiana Jones web page suggests that:

despite being implied in the movie to be Egyptian, the writing around the edges appears to actually be Hebrew. The script is related to ancient Phoenician, which was used for both Hebrew and even early Greek, but is called Paleo-Hebrew.

  • Transliterated it reads: "v'amah achat m'al" "kadesh" "kabed YHWH v'hamiskhkan".

  • Translated it reads: "and one amah (Which was a biblical measurement) above/more" "holy/set apart" "honor YHWH and the tabernacle".

Still, it's not right.

In the first place, the symbols don't match up. The symbols look something like this script, supposedly an alternative script for Hebrew. But they're not really the same. And there's no way to match up the headpiece symbols (cryptogram-style) to form the Hebrew words transliterated on the Indiana Jones wiki page.

In the second place, it doesn't make sense for the message to be in Hebrew. The message was put onto the headpiece not by the Hebrews, but by whatever group of people captured the Ark from the Hebrews and buried it in Tannis. Also the message refers to "the Hebrew god whose Ark this is," obviously not the words of the Hebrews who know the God of the Hebrews as the one God of heaven and earth.

So what would make sense? And can the writing in the photo really be read to mean what it means in the film, the description of the staff useful in finding the hidden Ark?

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  • Here's the scene where the interpreter is translating the writing into English: youtu.be/Pk-B0s0jOwE?t=1m33s. – BrettFromLA Jun 7 '18 at 15:37
  • At least some of them look like someone played around with Iberian and some Old Hungarian script. The symbol (as you look at the top headpiece you provided) third from the bottom right and fourth from the bottom left looks like the Paleo-Hebrew 'mem' ('m'). Given the religious underpinning (Holy Grail, Ark of the Convenant, etc.) this might be for continuity between language suggesting one pre-Babel language for all peoples..? – wcullen Jun 9 '18 at 16:10
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+100

Yes, that script absolutely is Paleo-Hebrew. I recognized it instantly when re-watching the movie recently. But what is Hebrew doing on an Egyptian artifact? It’s a goof! There’s no good explanation for it.

In order to identify the letters on the headpiece, you need to find a form of Paleo-Hebrew that matches. The writing system went through many stages. For example, see this chart:

Paleo-Hebrew Development

Also see how the script looked in old coins:

Paleo-Hebrew Coins

So, looking at the images and the scene, the first and second sides say:

ואמה אחת מעל קדש · כבד יהוה והמשכן
תת[ ]אמה · קמתו

This can be understood as:

And one cubit above holy · Honour the LORD and his tabernacle
800[ ]cubits · is its height

There are a lot of problems here, but someone clearly did some research to make this. That makes it even more bizarre that Hebrew was chosen, rather than Egyptian!

Besides the fact that this doesn’t match what is said in the movie, the most obvious problem to me is using gematria notation to indicate 800 cubits (which is already an absurd height—approximately 1200 ft). By writing ‘תת’, it’s indicating that the number is 400 + 400 (ת is 400). This is anachronistic by several centuries, since this system comes from Greek.

For more information about the Hebrew and these errors in the movie, see the article ‘So How Tall is the Staff of Ra?’.

  • It's instructions leading to the most significant Hebrew artefact of all time. Why should it not be written in Hebrew? – Stop Harming Monica Apr 1 at 9:52
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    @OrangeDog ... I think the argument is that it's a captured artifact being hidden by an Egyptian Pharaoh in an Egyptian city, and the Staff of Ra is kind of 'the key'. It even has the "take back one kadam to honor the Hebrew god who's Ark this is" (to me) indicating that the creator is intended to not be Jewish. – iandotkelly Apr 1 at 14:15
  • That said, the choice of ancient script is a minor flaw. – iandotkelly Apr 1 at 14:16
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    Congratulations, this is the winner of the monthly answer challenge. – Napoleon Wilson Apr 9 at 16:45

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