Contributed by Y. Garfinkel (November 5, 2008)
This summer an extraordinary Semitic inscription was found at Khirbet Qeiyafa. It was uncovered inside the fortified city, near the gate, lying on a floor level of a building. The city existed for a rather short time, within the 10th century BC, thus, the dating of the inscription is perfectly secured to the beginning of the First Temple period, known as the United monarchy, the time of kings David and Solomon.
The inscription is a large pottery fragment (ostracon), ca. 15 Ã— 15 cm. written with ink. It contains five rows, divided by black lines. Each row has 10 letters or so in Proto-Canaanite script. According to the preliminary observations of the epigraphist, Dr. Haggai Misgav, the language of the ostracon is Hebrew. This is the longest Proto-Canaanite inscription ever found and the earliest Hebrew text known to date. Other possible Hebrew inscriptions are the Gezer calendar (ca. 900 BC), the stele of king Mesah (ca. 850 BC) or the Samaria ostraca (ca. 800 BC). The new inscription is earlier by 100-200 years from the other earlier Hebrew inscriptions. As the decipherment has just begun, it is still immature to talk about the content, but it clearly bears a massage, a letter sent between two people.
Paleography: The complicated writing techniques developed in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt enabled only professional scribes to read and write. Contrarily, the simple Semitic alphabet writing technique enables larger segments of the population to read and write. Thus, it is one of the most important intellectual inventions of human kind. But the early developments of the Semitic alphabet and its transmitting to the early Greek, and then to Latin and the rest of the world is poorly known. The earliest type of alphabet script, known as Proto-Canaanite, was found in Canaan, Sinai peninsula and Egypt in various sites dated from the second millennium BC (Middle Bronze and Late Bronze periods, ca. 1700-1200 BC). In this stage it was rather pictorial in character, adopting Egyptian hieroglyph signs.
In the Iron I period (1200-1000 BC) the hieroglyphs became more and more schematics, and it was assumed that at ca. 1000 BC the script became standardized in various aspects, like the number of letters (22), the direction of writing (from right to left) and the shape of the letters. As the Greek letters are quite similar to Proto-Canaanite script it was generally believed that they adopted the alphabet script in the late second millennium BC.
Very few early alphabet inscriptions are known. Most of them are either very short, or just a list of the letters (abecedary). Almost all of them do not have a secure archaeological context, thus lacking clear dating. The new inscription is the first Proto-Canaanite script clearly dated from the 10th century BC. It will now serve as the anchor for the entire developments of the early alphabet scripts: the Semitic (Phoenician, Hebrew and others) as well as the Greek.
Implication to Biblical History: Currently, there is a bitter debate about the historical accounts of Kings David and Solomon as presented by the Biblical tradition. The main arguments so far were the luck of urban centers that can be clearly dated to the time of the United Monarchy (Early Iron Age IIa period).
On September 13th 2008 a colloquium of some 40 Israeli archaeologists took place at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The pottery from the fortified city was presented and discussed. There was a general agreement that the assemblage is indeed from the very beginning of the Iron IIa period. The new excavations clearly indicate that already in the time of David and Solomon urban cities were constructed in Judah. The fortifications of the site required 200,000 ton of stones. The upper part of the gate was built with ashlar stones, a clear characteristic of royal activities in the Biblical period. There was a need for administration to organize these massive building activities and indeed the new inscription indicates that writing was in use. The new inscription indicates that writing was indeed practiced in the biblical kingdom of Judah from its very beginning. Thus, historical memories could have been survived for generations and the biblical traditions regarding the period of kings David and Solomon cannot be overlooked.
Acknowledgments. Khirbet Qeiyafa excavations are conducted by Prof. Yosef Garfinkel and Mr. Saar Ganor, on behalf of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Funds were kindly provided by J.B. Silver, the Berman Center for Biblical Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Foundation Stone and the Curtiss and Mary Brenan Foundation. The expedition website is: qeiyafa.huji.ac.il