Charles Clermont-Ganneau and the Moabite Stone

Charles Simon Clermont-Ganneau was born in France, on February 19, 1846 and became a member of the French Diplomatic Corps.

A skilled translator, Clermont-Ganneau became Professor of Oriental Languages including Hebrew and ancient Aramaic. He took specific interest in the archaeological evidence for Bible history. In 1873-74 he engaged in archaeological investigations in Palestine, especially around Jerusalem. He sought to link the names of Arab villages with the Bible names of towns. He also excavated tombs, studying ossuaries (burial coffins) used from the time of Christ to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. He found many New Testament names and also the symbol of the cross on some ossuaries.

Clermont-Ganneau is best remembered, however, for his translation of the Moabite Stone. That story commences in 1868 when a German medical missionary named Klein discovered an inscribed stone “four feet high, two feet wide and 14 inches thick” in the village of Dhibon (This is the Bible town of Dibon cited in Joshua 13:9), in Moab. Recognising the value of this Mesha Stele, although unable to decipher the writing, Klein offered to purchase the stone. But the German Consul also heard of the find and wanted to buy it.

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Then the young Frenchman, Charles Clermont-Gammeau, hired a local Arab to go and examine the stone. The poor copy of the inscription this fellow brought back was enough to convince Clermont-Gammeau of the stone’s historical value. Next he sent Ya’qub Karavaca, an Arab, and two companions to make a ‘squeeze’ of the inscription, by pressing wet paper on the stone and peeling it off when it was dry.

But the Bedouins who owned the stone caused trouble. A fight broke out.

“One of Karavaca’s companions was speared in the leg, but the other, as he fled, snatched the still wet squeeze off the stone and stuffed it inside his tunic…” (Diggings, January, 1995).

Suffice to say it is to Clermont-Gammeau we are indebted for the ‘Moabite Stone’, which is dated from about 850BC and now in the Louvre Museum in Paris –and the translation that speaks of Mesha, king of Moab rebelling against Omri, King of Israel … just as the Bible says it did! (II Kings 3:4-5).

Once again the spade had vindicated the Book of books.

Clermont-Gammeau continued to have a significant role in archaeological investigation, including the ossuaries mentioned earlier. He also functioned as the most reliable authority on antiquities following the discovery of the Moabite Stone.

A Jerusalem antiquities dealer, Moses Shapira, tried to cash in on the Moabite excitement, producing a multitude of fake Moabite artefacts including clay figurines, large human heads and clay vessels. He had them inscribed with texts copied from the Mesha Stele. The Germans, stung by missing out on the Moabite Stone, bought 1700 of Shapira’s artefacts for the Berlin Museum.

Clermont-Gammeau was convinced the pieces were forgeries and was able to expose the modern manufacture of the pieces.

Then in 1883 Shapira presented fragments of supposedly ancient parchment claimed to come from near the Dead Sea. Clermont-Gammeau not only suspected forgery but was able to show how Shapira had taken the fake strips from a Deuteronomy scroll he had previously sold to the British Museum. Shapira’s attempted sale for a million pounds fell through and he later shot himself.

Clermont-Gammeau died on February 15, 1923, just days before his 77th birthday.

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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com