World’s Leading Near East Epigrapher Returns to GW

Columbian College welcomes Christopher Rollston as a professor of Northwest Semitic languages and literatures.

Christopher Rollston
Christopher Rollston holds a pot inscribed with modern forgery at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. Dr. Rollston will join the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences faculty in the fall. (Photo credit: Marne Taylor)
July 11, 2014

By John DiConsiglio

In a western Galilee excavation site, archaeologists unearth a massive stone covered in mysterious Aramaic engravings. Along the Mediterranean coast, scholars are puzzled by Phoenician markings on 4,000-year-old pottery shards. And in the deserts of Jordan, an ancient Moabite altar is discovered, but experts struggle to decipher the inscriptions adorning its surface.

What do these cases have in common? When Near East researchers found themselves stumped by the words on ancient artifacts, there is one person they all called: Christopher Rollston.

The world’s leading Near East epigrapher, Dr. Rollston is a master of more than a dozen long-dead languages, from Akkadian to Ugaritic. He is a veteran of dig sites like Syria’s Umm e-Marra and Israel’s Megiddo.

“He’s the go-to guy when you’ve got an ancient inscription that needs translating,” said Eric Cline, professor of classics and anthropology.

This fall, Dr. Rollston brings his skills and passion—not to mention his encyclopedic knowledge of texts from the Hebrew Bible to the Dead Sea Scrolls—to GW’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. Or, more precisely, back to Columbian College. A popular visiting professor in the spring 2013 semester, Dr. Rollston will return to the school as a full-time associate professor of Northwest Semitic languages and literatures in the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

“I am delighted to be coming back to the George Washington University,” Dr. Rollston said. “It is a great university with a distinguished faculty and stellar students. I have rarely enjoyed teaching as much as I did here.” 

Dr. Rollston is a scholar of the ancient Near East, specializing in the Hebrew Bible, Old Testament Apocrypha, Northwest Semitic literature, paleography and biblical languages. Epigraphy—translating ancient inscriptions into modern languages—remains his true passion, one that he’s eager to convey to students.

“Inscriptions are a unique and peerless window into the ancient world of humanity past,” he said. “They remind us of where we came from and the successes and failures of people who lived so very long ago.”

From the Classroom to the Field

Dr. Rollston is the author and editor of hundreds of scholarly articles and five books, including the acclaimed “Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel: Epigraphic Evidence from the Iron Age.” Dr. Rollston has held two National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships, most recently at the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem. In addition to teaching at GW, he was a professor at John Hopkins University and the Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Tennessee. During the spring of 2014, he taught at Tel Aviv University.

In 2007, Dr. Rollston was called as an expert witness for the prosecution in Israel’s infamous “James Ossuary” trial. He testified that the Jehoash Stele—a sandstone tablet purportedly describing repairs to King Solomon's temple—is a modern fake, not an actual ancient inscription. He also maintained that the inscription on the ossuary, a limestone box that some believe held the bones of James, the brother of Jesus, is a fake as well.

“Chris is the top epigrapher of our generation, a distinguished scholar and a dynamic teacher,” Dr. Cline said. “He’s a rock star, and we are remarkably fortunate to have him.”

In the fall, Dr. Rollston will teach “Law and Diplomacy in the Ancient Near East” and “Religion of Ancient Israel” courses at GW. He’s expected to revive his popular 2013 classes on the Dead Sea Scrolls and gods and goddess of the ancient Near East, as well as possible future courses on ancient languages.

But the department sees Dr. Rollston’s impact extending beyond his initial course load. His hire is the first step in the creation of a new major in ancient Near Eastern studies, Dr. Cline said, while Dr. Rollston’s presence lifts the department’s national and international profile. Dr. Rollston and Dr. Cline were also chosen as co-editors of “The Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research,” the leading scholarly journal of Near Eastern archaeology.

“Adding him as a component to our talented team gives us a ‘Murderers’ Row’ of great professors,” Dr. Cline said. “It turns our already good department into a great one.”

Dr. Rollston plans to emphasize an interdisciplinary approach to his Columbian College classes, designing his work to appeal to students and faculty from religion and history to Judaic and women’s studies. He is anxious to involve students in his research endeavors, in particular an online database of ancient Hebrew inscriptions for which he hopes to enlist students studying the humanities, engineering and computer science.

“GW students are engaged, ready to learn and anxious to reflect on the precise content and timeless themes of these ancient texts,” he said. “Involving students in research is a win-win.”