[[EDIT: See additions at bottom of post.]]
I am now a semiticist and Old Testament scholar. This blog post fulfils a dream I’ve had since being a little boy: translating some of the stuff you see in the Indiana Jones movies. I’m sure someone else has also done this online. But I wanted to have a go myself.
What is super exciting about this, is that not only does it involve transcription and translation work, but because a partial copy was made of a text: we need to do a bit of text criticism too. This is a fantastic way for me to relax on a Sunday evening.
Headpiece of the Staff of Ra
In the first Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy uses an amulet called the headpiece of the staff of Ra to identify the location of the Ark of the covenant (cf. Exod 25:10-22).
Here’s a picture of the amulet I found on the web:
Recto, the front of the amulet, the top picture in the above image:
|𐤊𐤁𐤃 𐤉𐤄𐤅𐤄 𐤅𐤄𐤌𐤔𐤊𐤐||(Paleo-Hebrew transliteration)|
|כבד יהוה והמשכפ||(Hebrew transliteration)|
|kbd yhwh whmškp||(Latin transliteration)|
|𐤅𐤀𐤌𐤄 𐤀𐤇𐤕 𐤌𐤏𐤋 𐤒𐤃𐤔|
|ואמה אחת מעל קדש|
|wʾmh ʾḥt mʿl qdš|
Verso, the back of the amulet, the bottom picture in the above image:
Nazi Imprint of the Headpiece of the Staff of Ra
After the fight in Nepal, Indy walked away with the amulet, but Major Arnold Toht had accidentally burnt his hand trying to pick it up. This branded the amulet onto the palm of his hand (partly because Toht went to grab it in the most ridiculously cartoonish fashion—so much for the superior intellect of the Gestapo). Here is an image of the brand left on Toht’s palm:
We should note first, sadly, the impossibility of this image. Back in Nepal, when Toht went to pick up the amulet, the Jewish candle was facing upward toward the ceiling, and Toht reached down from above to grasp it. Therefore, when Toht makes the Hitler salute, as he does in the above screenshot, the tops of the candles should be at the bottom of his palm. Furthermore, when he reaches down, the bird’s beak is clearly facing toward his little finger, not his thumb. Whereas in the shot of him making the Hitler salute, the beak is clearly facing toward Toht’s thumb.
Ok, so, not great points for continuity. But we can forgive Spielberg for not anticipating the age of digital rewind and pause back in the ’80s. More relevant for us, however, is the question of what text was burned onto Toht’s palm.
This is where I have to take my hat off to Belloq (the French archaeologist collaborating with the Nazis), because for the life of me I cannot discern what the lettering is on Toht’s hand. It looks to me like the burn was put together by someone in the make-up department who didn’t have the same eye for detail as whoever was in charge of creating the amulet prop.
There’s something that looks like a cursive Hebrew Šin, and something else that looks like a Greek majuscule Lambda. None of it looks to me like Paleo-Hebrew script, or the mirror image of Paleo-Hebrew script.
However, given that: (a) we know that the scar ended up on Toht’s hand because he tried to pick up the amulet, and (b) we know that only one side of the amulet has text that runs right up to the candlesticks, then we can infer what text was available to the Nazi’s by examining the amount of text that is available from Toht’s scar. There seem to be 5 full characters visible on the left of the candlesticks (towards the little finger, away from the beak), and the fragmentary remains of one burn. On the other side there are 3 full characters visible (towards the thumb, in the direction of the beak).
That would presumably mean that all Belloq had to work on was two fragmentary readings from lines (1) and (2). These Nazi fragments of lines (1) and (2) are here labelled lines (1*) and (2*):
|(1*)||Recto, left side (away from the beak)|
|(2*)||Recto, right side (towards the beak)|
However, we should note that this is only the text that has scarred onto Toht’s hand and that remained visible by the time he came to inspect the dig in Egypt. It is possible that more text had been visible previously, but that the outside of the scar did not burn as much, and healed over better, subsequently obscuring the text. In fact, a glance at the outside of Toht’s hand reveals that there does seem to be some yellowish scarring where one would expect to see the remainder of line (1). Perhaps more of the text of line (1), at least, was therefore previously visible in this place.
We shall return to this possibility later.
In-Movie Translation of the Amulet
In the movie, Amir (an Imam) provides a translation of the amulet for Indy and Sallah. Helpfully, he both translates parts of the amulet, and in most cases, an extreme close-up shot follows his finger tracing the text as he translates it. This situation allows us to evaluate Amir’s translation.
Amir is sitting reading the amulet and calls Indy and Sallah over to explain what he’s found. He then says:
This is a warning… not to disturb the Ark of the Covenant.
The line as it is delivered in the movie seems to me an impressionistic overview of the contents of the amulet—even though an online script I found had a stage direction that suggested he was supposed to be reading this directly from the amulet.
Indy then asks whether Amir can “get the height of the staff off here.” Amir says “Yes, it is here” and points to line (1):
Amir then says:
This was the old way, this means 6 qaddam high.
Sallah translates this to mean 72 inches. But, Amir stops him, turns over the amulet, and then points to line (4):
…and take back…
he then points to line (3):
And continues to translate:
the shot moves away from Amir’s hand to Indy’s face, as Amir keeps speaking:
…to honour the Hebrew God whose ark this is.
I presume that, off camera, this was Amir’s translation of line (2).
Indy, checking again with Sallah that the Nazi text only had information from one side, concludes from this that Belloq will have created a staff that is too long.
Evaluating Amir’s Translation
When it comes to evaluating Amir’s translation we have three key sources of information: (a) the amulet itself; (b) the events of the movie; and (c) the statements by the various characters.
For various reasons that we will discuss, we must be open to the possibility that the words by various characters—even “good” characters—are unreliable. Even the events of the movie may require an alternative explanation than what appears to be straightforward from a cursory following of the narrative.
The Units for the Staff’s Height
First, let us begin with the thing that mattered most to Indy: the height of the staff required to use the amulet. Amir interpreted the amulet as saying that the staff needed to be “6 qadam high”. “Qadam”, قدم, is the Arabic word for “foot”. And Sallah equates this with a Western “foot”, since he translates 6 qadam (the form used as the plural in the movie) as 72 inches, i.e. 12 inches per qadam.
Presumably, when Amir described this as “the old way”, Sallah interpreted that to mean “the pre-metric system”, rather than a way of measurement that would have been in use during the Iron Age. This perhaps reveals Sallah’s relative inexperience as an archaeologist.
[[EDIT: SEE NOTE 1 AT BOTTOM]]
Since, as noted, Indy presumes that Belloq knew this information, but not having a copy of the other side of the amulet did not know that he should then step back by one qadam, he presumably builds a staff that is 5 qadam tall.
Given all this, in light of the scene where Indy actually uses the amulet, we can only conclude that Sallah was wrong in his identification of the length of a qadam, and that Indy did the maths off screen before making his staff. Here is a screenshot of the scene where Indy lines up the staff with the amulet atop in order to identify the location of the ark:
If a qadam equates to a foot, then 6 qadam minus one is 5 foot. Yet, Harrison Ford is 6 foot, 1 inch tall. So Indy should be taller than even Belloq’s longer, incorrect, staff. In the above shot the base of the staff is touching the ground. Indy does indeed have his head lowered, but he is not even 3/4 of the height of the staff. This means that for the above shot to work, if the staff were indeed 5 feet tall, then Indy would have to have lowered his head to a height of 3 foot, 9 inches, which is nearly half his height. This is clearly not the case.
Therefore: the staff is most definitively much taller than 5 foot.
It seems very clear, then, that in the previous scene when the amulet was translated either: (a) Sallah made a mistake in the identification of the length of a qadam; or (b) Amir did not correctly translate the amulet. In either case, Indy must have realised the error off screen, and then corrected it, so that he could make a staff of the height that he has when he is in the above screenshot.
Note that the events of the narrative affirm that the height of Indy’s staff is the correct height, because it works. Of course, it could be blind luck that Indy created a staff of the right height. But, given the precision of the optics involved, the chances of this are so low, that it is safe to assume that Indy did get both the correct translation of the amulet and the quantity for a qadam. But, since the prop in this scene is incongruous with what Amir and Sallah say in the previous scene, we must conclude that at least one of those two characters is wrong.
This is the first hint that Amir’s translation—or at minimum the interpretation of it given on screen—is not as trustworthy as first appears.
In fact, the word used for the unit in the inscription is אמה, which we could vocalise as אַמָּה ʾammɔh “cubit”. A cubit was indeed an ancient unit of measurement, used by people throughout the ancient world, and may have originated in Egypt as far back as 3000 ʙᴄ. A cubit was about 18 inches long, not 12 inches long. And therefore 5 cubits would be about 7 and a half feet—a figure that looks remarkably like the height of the staff that Indy uses in the screenshot above.
So… this was Sallah’s mistake? Well… not sure about that. Because I’m not sure that qadam would be the best way to translate cubit into Arabic. I think the original script had something like “jabir”, which, I’m guessing (not great with my Arabic yet) would be a better rendering of this ancient unit.
As already discussed, at the end of the translation scene Indy had identified Belloq’s mistake to be that he had built a staff that was “too long”. This was because Belloq only had access to what Indy described as “the top” of the amulet, not the other side, where Amir had made the crucial observation that the size of the staff should be shorter by one qadam.
It is worth, however, questioning whether Indy’s assessment of the situation is indeed accurate. The image of Toht above revealed that his scar only retained a few letters, as transliterated in (1*) and (2*). There are, in fact, very few viable interpretations of these extant letters, and none of them have anything to do with the length of the staff.
One interpretation of (1*) would be to vocalise the first word as a defective noun:
|kəbod yh[w…||(Latin transcription)|
|the glory of Yah[w…||(translation)|
Amir’s rendering of line (2) seems to reflect this text from line (1), though his translation treats כבד as an infinitive. We’ll unpick some of this below, but however כבד is vocalised, it tells Belloq nothing about the height of the staff.
Line (2*) could also be vocalised as either a noun, or a verb:
Again, however the consonants are vocalised they would tell Belloq nothing at all about the length of the staff.
Therefore, for Belloq to make the mistake Indy believes he has made, it is absolutely necessary that more of the text was indeed burnt onto Toht’s palm, but that this text had been lost because Toht’s hand partially healed.
Yet… it is far more likely that Indy was simply wrong. He was surmising from educated guesswork after all. Rather than creating a staff of the wrong height, it is far more likely that Belloq would have cut the inner crystal incorrectly. Or, as is even more likely, that he simply had no way of working anything out from Toht’s scar, and simply lied to the Nazis so that he could carry on working with their funding. Actually, the scene where Belloq is walking through the dig site talking about the fact that the dig has not made much progress is entirely consistent with this. Belloq is trying to claim that it’s not his fault that they haven’t found the ark, that he had made no promises, and that he had only said “it looked very favourable”.
The idea that the odds could be “very favourable”, when the dig required successfully reconstructing an optical illusion from a crystal cut to a specific shape and held at a precise height, all on the basis of a scar left on someone’s hand… well even if Belloq did have all the text in these circumstances, it would be ridiculously unlikely that he would be able to find the location of the ark.
Belloq almost certainly lied to the Nazis.
The Order of Amir’s Reading
The order of the text as Amir identified it in the amulet seems pretty implausible on first blush. It’s worth noting the bizarre nature of the text that results:
Amir reads the Amulet by starting at line (1). He reads half the text on one side of the amulet. He then flips it over top-to-bottom to read the corresponding text on the opposite side of the amulet, line (4), reads all the rest of the text on this side, line (3), then finishes by reading the rest of the text on the original side, line (2).
A couple of points:
- If I wrote on an amulet, then I would write on one side first before moving onto the next side—as is the case with pretty much every other object with writing on from the ancient world.
- I would fill up as much space as I could before moving on. In the way Amir reads the amulet, the entire middle clauses are single words with lots of space on either side. The only way this would be the case is if the text was planned to flow this way across the amulet, otherwise I would not know if I had enough space to fit in everything I wanted to write.
Therefore, the text of the amulet was planned, and planned in such a way so that instructions about removing a qadam deliberately appear on the back side of the amulet. An Iron Age writer could not possibly anticipate that someone in the future would only have access to one side of the tablet, and so could not have been written this way for that reason.
However, the Egyptians did like to create text that was symmetrical. Therefore, the order and patterning of the text seems consistent with an Egyptian scribe.
Presumably the amulet was written in Hebrew out of deference to the God of the covenant. The observation, at least, is consistent with Amir’s interpretation of the scribe’s reason for removing a qadam from the height needed for the staff.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Amir’s reading of the tablet, however, is that he moves from left to right. This is one of those subtle features of the actor’s performance that reveals he is, in fact, Norwegian, and not familiar with Jewish or Arabic culture.
Once the text is correctly translated, then the position and order of the lines makes a lot more sense, as will be discussed below.
Amir’s Translation and the Text
Perhaps I should just cut to the chase and say, straight up, that this amulet was an awesome prop made by someone in the props department who really loved their job and cared about what they did down to the fine details, but was then grossly mis-shot by the Director (whom I love, but must call out on this heinous sin).
Let’s start with the crucial part of the text: lines (3) and (4). Amir had identified line (1) as the place that tells Indy how tall the staff should be. And, he translated it as saying that it should be 6 qadam high.
This was entirely incorrect.
In fact, this crucial piece of information is on not on the recto at all, but on the verso. In other words: the information that Belloq was supposed to have read was on the side of the amulet that he didn’t have. While the crucial qualification clause that he was supposed to be lacking was actually on the side that Toht burnt into his hand—however even then the place where this information was is the least likely to have been visible to Belloq. This therefore provides, I think, definitive proof of my theory above that Belloq had no information about the height of the staff needed at all and was indeed just flying by the seat of his pants to take money off the Nazis to do the archaeology he wanted to.
(That sort of cavalier attitude to obtaining funds so that an archaeologist can do what they want is, actually, pretty typical of the 1930s.)
Lines (3) and (4) together read as follows, with a translation provided by me. Because Amir flipped the amulet top to bottom, he therefore read these lines in the correct order (right to left), but did not associate the correct translation with them:
|‘six cubits (4) you raised it (3)’||(my translation)|
|‘and take back (4) one qadam (3)’||(Amir’s translation)|
Similarly, the entirety of the recto side should also be read together. However, the lines should be read from right to left, not left to right as Amir does. Amir translates כבד as an infinitive, which is quite unusual without a preceding ל preposition, but not impossible. Following his lead (which I presume comes from the translation given to the writers by the person who wrote the amulet for them) I will therefore render קדשׁ as an infinitive also:
|(2-1)||וְאַמָּה אַחַת מֵעַל קַדֵּשׁ כַּבֵּד יהוה וְהַמִּשֶּׁכַפ|
|but one cubit from the top to sanctify (2) and glorify YHWH and the one from who’s hand (1)||(my translation)|
|to honour the Hebrew God whose ark this is. (2) 6 qadam high (1)||(Amir’s translation)|
Line (1), therefore, the line that Amir points to and says is the place where Indy can find the height of the staff: is actually the only line on the entire amulet that doesn’t discuss the height of the staff at all.
Three things I’ll note briefly:
In line (4) the word for 6 is spellt תת, i.e. ṯṯ, which in Hebrew is šš. There is precedent for PS ṯ > Heb. š, but I currently don’t know of any evidence for the development in the case of the numeral.
I struggled greatly with וְהַמִּשֶּׁכַפ, line (1). The use of šɛ is a late Hebrew development, and seems incongruous here, unless there’s something I’m missing.
The use of two infinitive construct forms in close succession is, I believe, odd.
I’m sure in these three cases there are probably some better explanations or vocalisations.
In conclusion, I’ll return to Amir’s summary about the message of the amulet:
This is a warning… not to disturb the Ark of the Covenant.
I… cannot see any evidence to justify this statement. The only possible warning that may exist in the text is if I have misread וְהַמִּשֶּׁכַפ. But other than that the text is all concerned with the height of the staff.
Amir gives an overall correct translation (putting aside the confusion over the units with Sallah), but points to the wrong places on the amulet when doing so.
When the amulet is translated correctly, then actually the position of the text makes sense: the front of the amulet simply reads תֵתאַמָּה קַמְתָּוֹ “you raised it six cubits”. But then on the back of the amulet there is a special instruction given as part of a statement of respect to the Hebrew God וְאַמָּה אַחַת מֵעַל קַדֵּשׁ כַּבֵּד יהוה וְהַמִּשֶּׁכַפ “but take one cubit from the top to sanctify and glorify YHWH also the one from who’s hand [is this ark].”
This is a pretty cool piece of movie lore.
Key to Leipzig glosses
2: 2nd person
3: 3rd person
ᴀʙꜱ: absolute state head of a construct chain
ᴄꜱᴛ: construct state
[[EDIT: NOTE 1:
My friend, and Septuagint scholar, Will Ross has suggested that when Amir refers to “The old way”, he’s talking about the use of the Paleo-Hebrew script, and not the unit of measurement.
I liked this explanation when he first gave it. But on reflection, I’m not persuaded:
(a) When Amir says “this is the old way”, the topic of conversation that has already been established by Indy’s question is the length of the staff. Amir gives no indication that his statement deviates from the established topic, whereas if he meant the script, I might expect him to say “This is written in the old way”;
and (b) the way Amir delivers the line appears to make the first clause a cataphoric anticipation of the second clause. His performance is reflected in my transcription of the line above with a comma, rather than a full stop: “This is the old way, this is 6 qadam high.” In other words, these clauses are semantically related, and the most obvious semantic relation they could have is that “the old way” denotes the unit of measurement.
I welcome further debate from my colleague on this important point.]]
[[EDIT: NOTE 2
Three additional things:
- My friend, and Bible translation expert, Joshua Harper, reminded me that the Ugaritic cardinal 6 is ṯṯ.
- I was contacted by a guy who, it turns out, had the idea to do a post like this not long before I did! Kudos to him: https://apelbaum.wordpress.com/2018/03/13/so-how-long-is-that-staff-of-ra-2-2/
- Just to clarify: this blog post was a tongue in cheek bit of fun on a Sunday afternoon. I mostly post bits of stuff that may be useful for other people here. If you’re interested in my peer reviewed academic work, then search for me on academia.edu