Centre professor of religion connects past to present


Beth Glazier-McDonald has an engaging way to characterize one of the interesting aspects of her job as professor of religion at Centre College.

"I speak many, many dead languages," she says with a grin.

She studied Syriac, Aramaic, Ugaritic, which is a Canaanite dialect, and Akkadian, as well as Hebrew, Greek and Arabic during graduate school at the University of Chicago.

"I was required to take an archaeology class," Glazier-McDonald explains. "I loved languages and I told them I'd take every language if they'd relieve me of the archaeology requirement."

Glazier-McDonald's lifelong interest in languages led her to want to work with primary sources, she says. When fellow religion professor C. Thomas McCollough came back from an archaeological dig in summer 1994, he asked her to translate an amulet found in Sepphoris. "It was a dream come true," Glazier-McDonald notes.


Their first collaborative effort was a bronze fever amulet that measured 3.5 centimeters in width by 8.2 centimeters in height. It is partially broken at the bottom. Its language is Aramaic and it dates to the early fifth century Common Era (C.E.) Glazier-McDonald says it is an "amulet for protracted fever." In ancient times, amulets were written, rolled up and put in a case.

"It binds power to you," she says.

McCollough says, "For me, really it's extraordinary luck to have a linguist of Beth's ability who could work with language after recovering the artifact. We have a world-class linguist here at Centre."

He adds he doesn't work with the translation and transliteration, which is writing or spelling words or letters in corresponding characters of another alphabet.

"I'm not a linguist - I'm a dirt man," McCollough says.

Glazier-McDonald's work adds a new dimension to the recovery of the amulets, because many are removed and go into collections. Where they are found sometimes is not recorded, which creates holes in the amulets' backgrounds.

"It's a great collaborative effort - the archaeology and linguistics," McCollough says. "Knowing where it comes from gives more (information for) archaeological analysis."

They've also collaborated on three other amulets, including a silver amulet that is written primarily in Hebrew with occasional "Aramaicisms." Its message is social rather than protective, and it dates from the same period as the bronze amulet. It was found in its silver case, and measures 11.2 centimeters long by 3.1 centimeters wide.

Glazier-McDonald spent a lot of time working on the silver amulet during a recent sabbatical. She says it "looks like silver foil." Because the amulets do not leave the country where they are found, Glazier-McDonald works from photographs.

"To work with these texts requires a lot of familiarity with (the language)," Glazier-McDonald explains. "The volunteer who found it was very attentive" to not damaging it.

She gets a photograph of an amulet and creates a line drawing. "I take what I see and create a rendition."

Often, the photographs are put under a high-powered microscope to further clarify the old writing. Then, they are put on a disc.

"With computer technology, you can take a small part and blow it up as large as you want," notes McCollough

For Glazier-McDonald's most recent work, there were almost 56 lines of text in a space less than 2 inches wide. It was written in Hebrew, with words that "flowed into one another," Glazier-McDonald says.

"There are no vowels - it's consonantal text," she explains. "Yeah, good luck.

"I know enough of the language that words fall into place. When learning Hebrew, you learn there are no vowels. There are groupings of letters, and you see and form a word by providing vowels. It's memory work. But the meaning of a word changes with vowels. It changes the force of meaning, especially with verbs."

Translation is a process of evaluation

Glazier-McDonald says translation is a process of evaluation.

"The more I work on an amulet, the more I see," she explains. "This silver amulet is an analysis between Biblical literature and amulet literature. And the line drawing is painstaking."

She adds she doesn't know the history of Sepphoris, so she has no preconceptions going into a translation/transliteration project.

"I've found some pretty neat stuff," Glazier-McDonald notes.

McCollough says he is trying to correlate the amulet with a recently excavated synagogue that has a Zodiac mosaic.

"Which is not too unusual, but it is unexpected," he says of the mosaic.

Glazier-McDonald says the amulet makes reference to Zodiac signs. Some of the language of the amulet leads them to believe there could be a connection between the amulet and the mosaic.

A fourth amulet is out of a collection and measures 8 centimeters by 3 centimeters. Glazier-McDonald says she is beginning to work on it.

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