The 19th of August marks the 155th anniversary of an archaeological discovery that has fascinated the world of biblical studies due to its profound biblical connections. History, however, has its way of concealing truths in the most unsuspecting shadows. The esteemed Monsieur Charles Clermont-Ganneau, renowned for his reconstruction of Mesha’s stele, seemingly overlooked, or chose not to regard, the first-hand testimony of one who beheld the Mesha Stele in all its original splendor. That invaluable testimony and a telling sketch are now in my possession. It’s high time the true narrative saw the light of day.
The Mesha Stele was tragically shattered into fragments. Determinedly, Monsieur Charles Clermont-Ganneau gathered as many remnants as he could of this revered Moabite relic and commenced on a meticulous reconstruction. His efforts resulted in the iconic black basalt monument—flat-bottomed and curved at the top—that now stands as a testament in the Louvre Museum. Its replicas grace other eminent institutions, and the imagery from Clermont-Ganneau’s meticulous handiwork resonates whenever the Mesha Stele is mentioned.
Yet, against this singular vision of the stele to which the world is indebted to Clermont-Ganneua, another picture emerges thanks to written reports and a sketch by the discoverer, Reverend F.A. Klein. On this significant anniversary, we must turn our gaze to the discoverer’s sketches and insights.
In the Pall Mall Gazette of 19 April 1870, Rev. F.A. Klein sought to set the record straight concerning “The Original Discovery of the Moabite Stone.” Part of his article was meant to correct misinformation on the shape of the stele. He said, “The stone is, as appears from the accompanying sketch, rounded on both sides, not only at the upper end as mentioned by Monsieur Ganneau, who says, ‘La forme de la stele était celle d’un carré long, terminé en haut par une partie arrondie, l’angle inférieur de droite était déja cassé depuis fort long-temps.’ From his sketch also of the stone he admits it not to have been rounded, but square at the bottom; but the fact of this being so cannot but be of importance to him, as it will give him the comfortable assurance that in the lower corner sides there are not as many words of the inscription missing as would be the case if it were square at the bottom, as he was wrongly informed by his authority; for, as in the upper part so also in the lower, in exactly the same way, the lines became smaller by degrees. Possibly in the length of the several lines there may be more letters to supply, as now supposed, as in this respect, the information received by M. Ganneau is not quite correct. He says of the stone: – “D’après les estampages elle aurait eu 1 mètre de hauteur et 0.60 centimètres de largeur, avec une épaisseur égale.’
According to my correct measurement on the spot, the stone had –
1 métre 13 centimètres in height,
“ 70 centimètres in breadth, and
“ 35 centimètres in thickness,
and, according to my calculation, had thirty-four lines; for the two or three upper lines were very much obliterated. The stone itself was in a most perfect state of preservation, not one single piece being broken off, and it was only from great age and exposure to the rain and sun that certain parts, especially the upper and lower lines, had somewhat suffered.”
Christian David Ginsburg referenced Reverend Klein’s description in his work on the Moabite Stone. He said, “As M. Ganneau, who never saw the Stone in its entirety, has given it out that it was square at the bottom, and as this serious mistake has been followed by all who have written upon, or who have given sketches of, the Moabite Stone, we subjoin Mr. Klein’s description, who, as we shall see hereafter, was not only the original discoverer of this remarkable monument, but is the only European who saw it before it was broken.” After quoting Klein’s description, Ginsburg then criticizes Professor Rawlinson’s “strange” presentation of the stone as flat on the bottom in his article published in the Contemporary Review of August 1870, since his work appeared “more than three months after the appearance of Mr. Klein’s letter in the Pall Mall Gazette, and more than a month after it was republished in the Palestine Exploration Society, Quarterly Statement.”
But Clermont-Ganneau’s inaccurate, flat-bottomed reconstruction refused to be toppled by the facts. In August of 1876, eight years after being shown Mesha’s stele, Reverend Klein again tried to set the record straight. In a piece for The Athenæum, published 12 August 1876 and republished in the PEFQ, we read,
“THE Rev. F. A. Klein writing to the Athenæum (Aug. 12, 1876) on the finding and destruction of this monument, insists that the stone was rounded at the lower end. The restoration by M. Clermont Ganneau (i.e., the photographer of the Fund), from his own squeeze, shows it square. Mr. Klein says, however :
“I have seen it repeated again and again in the Athenæum, and books and pamphlets, probably on the authority of the statements in the Athenæum, that the Moabite Stone was square at the lower end, and not oblong, though I had plainly stated that it was not so.
“I would, therefore, for the information of those who are anxious to know the truth on the subject, positively declare that the Moabite Stone was rounded off at the lower end in exactly the same manner as at the upper end. I could not possibly be deceived on the subject, as I saw the stone in the daytime, with both my eyes open, and drew a sketch of it, not after some weeks from recollection, but at the time and on the spot, as I still have it in my sketch-book. An exact copy of it was published in the Illustrated London News. As regards the measure, I could not give it with the greatest exactness, as I took it by the span, and subsequently ascertained it approximately in feet and inches.
“If the ‘restored Moabite Stone’ presents a square form at the bottom, this is no proof that my sketch is incorrect, but simply that there is some mistake in the restoration of the monument; and there is not the least doubt that, if properly restored, it will have an oblong shape at the lower end exactly in the same manner as at the upper end. I am sure that scholars who take an interest in this most valuable monument of antiquity will be glad to get as many reliable particulars about the same as possible, and, besides, it seems that the question of round or square shape may in some manner affect the inscription (at least, the two or three lower lines) itself, and thus has become of some importance.”
On 6 August 2021, I visited the present address of the offices of the Palestine Exploration Fund and was greeted by Felicity Cobbing, the Chief Executive and Curator of the prestigious organization. One of the many treasures shown to me was F.A. Klein’s sketch of the Mesha Stele. I photographed the sketch with permission and include it here. 19 August 2023 marks 155 years since arguably the most interesting archaeological discovery relating to the Bible was shown to Reverend Klein. Perhaps it is time to trust the one who saw it and finally correct one of Monsieur Clermont-Ganneau’s Monumental Mistakes.
F. A. KLEIN. (1869) The Original Discovery of the Moabite Stone, Palestine Exploration Quarterly, 2:6, 281-283, DOI: 10.1179/peq.1869.048
none (1876) The Shape of the Moabite Stone, Palestine Exploration Quarterly, 8:4, 181-182, DOI: 10.1179/peq.1818.104.22.168
 See for example my telling of the story of Moab’s famous stone in The Moses Scroll (Saint Francisville: Horeb Press, 2021) 9-21.
 Christian D. Ginsburg, LL.D., The Moabite Stone; A Fac-simile of the Original Inscription, with an English Translation, and a Historical and Critical Commentary, 2nd ed. (London: Reeves and Turner, 1871), 9. It should be mentioned that Ginsburg’s work also included a representation of the stele “reduced to one-third of the original,” a full page transcription, and a translation all presented as rounded on top and bottom.