How I came in the possession of some strange South(?) Arabian inscriptions

There is a story that I like telling people about the way I started doing my PhD, although it’s not one that I’ve really put into writing before – there is a short version that appeared in the Estonian magazine Müürileht, but the full story is so much better and worth of more attention. I don’t think I’ll be able to fit all of it into one blog post, but I’m going to start the i There are many ways how one could tell this story, but I’m going to start in  an unexpected place: Hamburg, Germany.

On the 17th of October 2015, the Swedish professor Christopher Toll passed away after a long and illustrious career as professor of Arabic and Semitic studies at . By coincidence, this is exactly one month before my 23rd birthday, the first one I would celebrate in Estonia after having moved there to start my MA degree at Tallinn University. Although Christopher Toll had worked on subjects that I was also already interested in (but we’ll get to that later), I’d never heard of him and I had no idea who he was.

Either way, as time went on I was lucky enough to have my PhD project funded by the University of Tartu. It was there that at one occasion the head of our department came in to the office and mentioned that there was a bunch of books, articles, letters, and a whole bunch of random stuff that had been sent to the university a few years prior. As you may have guessed, this was a good part of the inheritance of professor Christopher Toll. Why his next of kin decided to send (part of) his library to us isn’t really clear: as far as I’m aware, professor Toll had never been to Estonia nor did I find anything in his correspondence that ever hinted that he’d be interested in it. It’s been suggested that it’s due to the fact that the Tolls are an old Swedish aristocratic family, which also a presence in Estonia.

So I started going through the boxes containing professor Toll’s inheritance, the bulk of which consisted of (mostly Arabic-language) books. These had already been shipped off to the University Library, where I’d started cataloging them (before, you know, the coronavirus happened). What we were left with consisted mostly of (drafts of) articles, duplicates, personal letters to colleagues and editors of journals, and so on. There is so much to tell about these, but right now I want to focus on a brown envelope, which contained the imprints of two slabs with South Arabian inscriptions. In this envelop was a smaller white envelope, which contained the four smaller imprints seen on the left:

also pictured: our wonderfully tasteful tablecloth

There are a few interesting things to be told about these inscriptions, but I’m going to get into those in a later blog post (and maybe, an actual article). However, first of all I’d like to tell where they came from.

What we’re looking at here are not the original inscriptions: rather, these are imprints in plaster. The idea is that if for any reason someone does not want to or is unable to physically transport whatever item or object such inscriptions are written on, that a soft piece of plaster is pressed onto the inscription, leaving a nice imprint. In the case of three dimensional objects, this can leave some letters to become awkwardly placed (thanks to Fokelien Kootstra for pointing this out).

For reasons that I can’t get into right now (and may not be the most interesting to some readers) it’s not immediately obvious where these inscriptions are from: some letters look South Arabian, others look more distinctively North Arabian. So after consulting with some other friends/colleagues in the field of Arabian epigraphy the most important thing was to figure out how these inscriptions came to me in the first place.


This is the envelop which originally contained the imprints. On the top left the name of the sender is visible as G. Ahlström. This is in fact Gösta Ahlström, a Swedish professor of Old Testament Studies who published extensively on the history of Ancient Israel.

Photo by Mike Weinstein, University of Chicago Photographic Archive

The recipient’s name is quite a bit harder to read, but the address reads 8200 Aarhus. The street name is a bit more difficult, but it is in fact the address of Aarhus University: Jens Chr. Skous vej 2. This also happens to be the address of the Institute of Semitic philology, which was integrated into the Institute of Culture and Society (Institut for Kultur og Samfund) in 2011.

After a bit of googling around, it was also possible to uncover the initially illegible name of the recipient as that of Erling Hammershaimb, who apart from having the most bad-ass Viking-sounding name, specialized in Old Testament exegesis and even became rector of the University of Aarhus. Hammershaimb passed away in 1994.


Photographer unknown. 

It is probably in Aarhus that the imprints came into the possession of professor Toll; this is pretty much confirmed by another letter, which he sent to the editor in chief of the Zeitschrift für arabische Linguistik on the 15th of May, 1984. For the non-German-inclined reader, the relevant bit is the second paragraph: “For the address I prefer my work address: the Institute for Semitic Philology, etc”.

toll letter
Some more personal details were added 

And so this is how a few imprints of South (?) Arabian inscriptions were sent from Chicago to Aarhus in December of 1982, before coming to the University of Tartu sometime after October 2015. In a next blog post I want to go in to more deeply on why there’s a question mark after South Arabian, because there’s probably something more going on here.


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