A Roman ring with “Pilato” on it found in Israel?

A story today in Haaretz, here, has been repeated across the news outlets:

Ring of Roman Governor Pontius Pilate Who Crucified Jesus Found in Herodion Site in West Bank

The ring was found during a dig led by Professor Gideon Forster from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem 50 years ago, but only now has the inscription been deciphered

Nir Hasson | Nov 29, 2018 8:12 AM

A far better article by Amanda Borschel-Dan – timestamped 4:08pm – appears in the Times of Israel here.  This references the actual scholarly publication.

Views and cross-section of finger ring that may have belonged to Pontius Pilate (drawing: J. Rodman; photo: C. Amit, IAA Photographic Department, via Hebrew University)

The ring was first found among hundreds of other artifacts in 1968–1969 excavations directed by archaeologist Gideon Foerster, at a section of Herod’s burial tomb and palace at Herodium that was used during the First Jewish Revolt (66–73 CE). Recently, current dig director Roi Porat asked that the engraved copper sealing ring be given a thorough laboratory cleaning and scholarly examination.

The scientific analysis of the ring was published in the stalwart biannual Israel Exploration Journal last week, by the 104-year-old Israel Exploration Society. It was also popularly publicized — with slightly differing conclusions — on Thursday in Haaretz, under the headline “Ring of Roman Governor Pontius Pilate Who Crucified Jesus Found in Herodion Site in West Bank.” …

The IEJ article is vol. 68 (2018), pp.208-220, although I don’t have access to it.  The abstract in the IEJ site reads:

208.  SHUA AMORAI-STARK, MALKA HERSHKOVITZ, GIDEON FOERSTER, YAKOV KALMAN, RACHEL CHACHY and ROI PORAT: An Inscribed Copper-Alloy Finger Ring from Herodium Depicting a Krater

ABSTRACT: A simple copper-alloy ring dated to the first century BCE–mid-first century CE was discovered in the hilltop palace at Herodium. It depicts a krater circled by a Greek inscription, reading: ‘of Pilatus’. The article deals with the typology of ancient representations of kraters in Second Temple Jewish art and with the possibility that this ring might have belonged to Pontius Pilatus, the prefect of the Roman province of Judaea or to a person in his administration, either a Jew or a pagan.

The Times of Israel continues:

The IEJ’s analysis, “An Inscribed Copper-Alloy Finger Ring from Herodium Depicting a Krater,” was written by a collective of scholars including Kaye Academic College’s Art & Aesthetics Department professor emeritus Shua Amorai-Stark, and several archaeologists and academics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem: Malka Hershkovitz, Foerster, who excavated the ring, Yakov Kalman, Rachel Chachy, and Porat. Epigrapher Leah DiSegni, also of the Hebrew University, is credited with deciphering the inscription.

While it is unclear exactly when the ring was forged, it was discovered in an eastern garden built on a porch in a room constructed of secondary building materials. The room offered an archaeological layer which dates to no later than 71 CE, with “a wealth of finds,” including an array of glass, ostraca, pottery and decorated mud stoppers, and “an abundance” of metal artifacts, such as iron arrowheads, a large number of First Jewish Revolt coins, and one copper alloy sealing ring.

At the center of the ring is an engraved krater, a large wine vessel, which is encircled by minute “partly deformed” Greek letters spelling out “of Pilatus.” Interestingly, according to DiSegni, the direction of writing for the two words is different, and one word is “disturbed by a defect” in the metal.

According to the scholars, the bezeled ring, which has a narrow outer rim, was cast in one unit by a less-than-expert craftsman. There is evidence that the “mold for this ring was engraved quickly before pouring the melted metal or that the device was not prepared by a master smith,” they write.

The design at the center of the ring, write the authors, was likewise not necessarily elite. They reference a still unpublished clay sealing bulla that was discovered in the Temple Mount Sifting Project and archaeologists have tentatively dated to the first century CE.

The unpublished clay impression has at its center a single vessel, which is described in the IEJ article as “flanked by Greek letters placed in a manner similar to that of the letters on the ring bezel from Herodium. Like the inscription on the ring, the one on the bulla gives the name of a person (or his nickname or title).”

Of note, a motif close to the handleless large wine vessel appeared on a bronze pruta coin, which dates to 67-68 CE, years two and three of the Jewish Revolt, and depicted a handled amphora. These coins date to the same archaeological layer in which the ring was found. …

The authors, however, conclude that there is nothing in the ring’s design that makes it particularly either Roman or elite. They write that during the Second Temple period, the vessel “served as a meaningful Jewish symbol on sealing rings.”

“We propose, therefore, that this ring was made in a local workshop, perhaps located in Jerusalem,” write the authors. …

To the authors, the man described in historical texts such as Josephus, “Antiquities and Wars”; Tacitus, “Annals”; Philo, “De Legatione ad Gaium” and the New Testament would not have worn such a simple ring.

“Simple all-metal rings like the Herodium ring were primarily the property of soldiers, Herodian and Roman officials, and middle-income folk of all trades and occupations,” they write. “It is therefore unlikely that Pontius Pilatus, the powerful and rich prefect of Judaea, would have worn a thin, all copper-alloy sealing ring.”

As to whose ring it actually was, the authors offer a few suggestions, including other Early Roman period men called “Pilatus.” Likewise, the name may have referred to those under the historical Pilate’s command, a member of his family “or some of his freed slaves,” they write.

“It is conceivable,” write the authors, “that this finger ring from a Jewish royal site might have belonged to a local individual, either a Jew, a Roman, or another pagan patron with the name Pilatus.”

It did not, they conclude, belong to the Roman prefect himself.

This is sober and sensible.  Good to see that the excellent and careful scholar Leah Di Segni is the transcriber.

For those wondering, note that in the depiction of the ring that the inscription goes round with the letters “backwards” P I and then (left to right) O T A L.  To my ignorant eye this looks odd; but of course I know nothing about such items.

It is really curious that the two items from Israel both referencing the famous Pilate should both be discovered by the same archaeologist, tho.

Could this be fake?  It seems to have a provenance, but one might wonder just where it has been over the last 50 years.  People produce fakes to obtain fame or fortune, and anything like this would ordinarily be suspicious, precisely because its discoverer would be likely to obtain both.  It is reassuring to see a collective publication, therefore.  It is a great pity that no normal person can access it.

It would not be particularly surprising to find a ring associated in some way with the household of Pilate at Herodium, of course.

All the same, it is generally wise to be wary around spectacular finds.

5 thoughts on “A Roman ring with “Pilato” on it found in Israel?

  1. It seems reasonable enough to write backwards on a ring such as this, if it was wholly or partly intended to be used to imprint wax seals or to print a “signature” in the manner of a Chinese “chop”. In these cases it is more important that the imprint is legible, than the tool used to produce it.

  2. Many thanks for this!

    But what “two words” are referred to? It would seem that the one word ‘PILATO’ would start with the first syllable on the right going clockwise and continue with the second and third syllables also going clockwise. But, if so, what is that to the right of the iota – is this syllable the “one word […] ‘disturbed by a defect’ in the metal” i.e., the three ‘strokes’ (so to call them) to the right of the iota (as sketched)? And, how could this form of the name mean “of Pilatus”? Isn’t ‘Pilatos’ second declension noun, where the genitive would be ‘Pilatou’? Or, does “two words” mean ‘[t]ou P[i]lato[u]’, where the definite article lacks its tau (or the tau lacks its horizontal top stroke) and begins counter-clockwise in the lower right with the omicron compressed or (also) “‘disturbed by a defect’ in the metal” and the upsilon upside down? But then, where are the iota and second upsilon?

    I wonder if any of the authors have anything interesting on their departmental entries/blogs (if any) – not having paused to start looking?

  3. That last character (the one above the T) on the ring could be anything, or any two characters. I’d like to see a higher resolution photo.

    As for the one next to the iota, it looks like another lambda to me. (PILLAT-whatever.)

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