So How Tall is the Staff of Ra?

Yaacov Apelbaum - 3 Amah

We were going over some Indiana Jones trivia during dinner recently and one of the questions that came up had to do with the length of an item that appeared in the Raiders of the Lost Ark called the “Head of the Staff of Ra”.  The discussion must have triggered some long lost memory in my brain because I suddenly remembered that in the movie, that object—which is a sort of a medallion—had an inscription on it.

I remembered that there was a calculation there pertaining to the height of the staff so I was hoping that there was a quick way to figure out the math. I searched online for the phrase “head of the staff of Ra” and got an image of the original prop used in the movie. Sure enough, both sides had a clear and legible engraving in none other than ancient Hebrew script (also known as Paleo-Hebrew ).

Yaacov Apelbaum - Headpiece to the staff of Ra

Transliterations and translations of the inscriptions are as follows:

Obverse Side

Reverse Side

vamh aht mel kds kbd yhvh vhmskn

tt amh qmtw

ואמה אחת מעל קדש כבוד ה’ והמישכן

תת אמה קומתו

And one amah above holy to honor G-d and the Tabernacle

TT amah is its height

As soon as I translated the text, I realized that the inscription had some glaring stylistic and contextual problems. First, the alphabet used in the script is based on a mixture of 11th-9th century styles. That would never happen in a real historical text. It is likely that the creator of the script resorted to cannibalizing several script styles because we don’t have written evidence for some letters such as /k/ Qophin the 11th century BCE Ahiram text, which they used for some of the letters.  Second, an object with 11th century style glyphs would have been an unlikely choice considering the fact that Solomon’s Temple, which housed the Ark of the Covenant, was built 150 years later (in about 832 BCE). The more appropriate script should have been based only on a 9th BCE century style.

Yaacov Apelbaum - Early Semitic Alphabet

As far as grammatical issues are concerned, the writer chose the word for “add” to be “me’al” מעל which most often  means above or from as in Kings 1:20:41. The proper form should have been a word based on the root יסף as in Proverbs 30:6. Second, the form of “kds kbd” קדש כבוד is never used together in reference to holy offerings. The more appropriate form should have been “holy to G-d” קדש ל’ה as in Ezra:8:28.

Beyond the inscription itself, the script contains some contextual problems as well. The main ones are:

Problem 1 – The movie script doesn’t jibe with the inscription text in terms of translation
Problem 2 – The height measurement units used are inconsistent
Problem 3 – The seared imprint on Major Toht’s right hand is the obverse side of the inscription

Problem 1
When Imam translates the inscription for Indy, (see movie script below), he says: “This is a warning not to disturb the Ark of the Covenant”, yet that warning doesn’t exist in the inscription.  Also, contrary to Imam’s claim that Indy should “…take back one kadam to honor the Hebrew God whose Ark this is”, the obverse inscription clearly calls for exactly the opposite: to ADD one amah to the base value.

Problem 2
Imam further states that the base height of the staff is six kadam and according the Salah’s calculation, this is about 72” (it’s actually 69”). The problem with this calculation is that we don’t know where Imam is getting the 6 kadam figure from. The inscription uses the term amah on both sides of the medallion. Interestingly, Egypt abandoned the use of the kadam in favor of the metric system in 1891, 45 years before the timeframe of the scene in the movie. Technically, then, Imam should not even be using the term.

Assuming that the reverse side of the medallion is following the form found in Kings 1:6:2, the height for the staff should be indicated in the first two letters of the word  HeMemAlephTawTaw(Hebrew is read from right to left). In Hebrew, each letter of the alphabet has an associated numeric value and the value of X (or ת value in post sixth century BCE Hebrew typography) is 400. So XX could be read as 400+400=800 amah or 472 feet.  Even if we read the first two letters XX as the spelling of the letter Teth Teth which equals 9, it would make the staff about 13 feet. This doesn’t make any sense as we can see clearly from the movie that the staff is about 7 foot tall.

Length Measurements Used
Amah  =  48 cm. (18 in.)
Kadam = 29 cm. (11.5 in.)

So in the case of problem 2, either there is a special way to read the XX value as 69” or the value in the inscription is wrong and should have been written as HeMemAlephDaleth, i.e. 4 amah.


Problem 3
The seared imprint on Major Toht’s right hand is actually the obverse side of the inscription. This means that contrary to Indy’s statement, Belloq had no way of getting the base staff height from his scar because the reference is located on the reverse side. On the other hand, if Belloq managed to get the base height somehow, he then had all of the missing information to construct the right staff height and in fact his staff was not too long.

Yaacov Apelbaum Major Arnold Ernst Toht-

So how long is the staff or Ra? It’s impossible to tell from the inscription. One thing is for sure, just like in anything else in life, G-d is in the details. As many forgers of ancient documents have discovered, creating a plausible fiction that relies on an actual ancient language, epigraphy, biblical scholarship, historical facts, and math is practically impossible. Or to paraphrase Mark Twain, “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense”.

Movie Script
Imam: Come, come, look. Look here… look. Sit down. Come, sit down.
Indy:   What is it?
Imam: This is a warning not to disturb the Ark of the Covenant.
Indy: What about the height of the staff, though? Did Belloq get it off of here?
Yes. It is here. This was the old way, this mean six kadam high.
Sallah: About 72 inches.
Imam: Wait! And take back one kadam to honor the Hebrew God whose Ark this is.
Indy: You said their headpiece only had markings on one side. Are you absolutely sure?
Indy: Belloq’s staff is too long. They’re digging in the wrong place.
Indy and Sallah: They’re digging in the wrong place!!

Yaacov Apelbaum - ROLA Script

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