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Archaeological Discoveries: Ancient Inscription of Alphabet Discovered Near Jerusalem

(November 2005)

In July 2005, archaeologists digging at Tel Zayit, a hill site outside of Jerusalem, found what appears to be the oldest Hebrew alphabet inscription on the wall of an ancient building. Scholars who have reviewed the inscription have suggested that it dates to the 10th century BCE, around the time of the United Kingdom of ancient Israel. If archaeologists and researchers are correct, this inscription is the oldest reliably dated example of an abecedary - the letters of the alphabet written out in their traditional sequence - and is one of the most compelling discoveries regarding the history of writing.

Writing experts said the find showed that the Hebrew characters were recognizable, but the language was still in the process of development from its Phoenician roots. There is a debate among scholars on whether or not the inscription is in Hebrew. P. Kyle McCarter Jr. from Johns Hopkins University described the alphabet as “a Phoenician type of alphabet that is being adapted...I do believe it is proto-Hebrew, but I can't prove it for certain.”

Ron E. Tappy, director of the Tel Zayit dig, said, “All successive alphabets in the ancient world, including the Greek one, derive from this ancestor at Tel Zayit.”

The two lines of incised letters on the inscription, which are thought to be the 22 symbols of the Hebrew alphabet, were on one side of the ancient building. According to The New York Times, “The inscription was found in the context of a substantial network of buildings at the site, which led Dr. Tappy to propose that Tel Zayit was probably an important border town established by an expanding Israelite kingdom based in Jerusalem.” The fact that it was a border town with an established culture and some literacy could suggest that there was a centralized leadership in the 10th century BCE, which ultimately could give more archaeological proof to the United Kingdom period under David and Solomon.

The find is not without controversy. Some biblical scholars believe David and Solomon were simply tribal chieftains, and that an advanced political system from 3,000 years ago like the United Kingdom, which some call the “golden age” of the Israelite period, cannot be supported. Dr. Tappy knows that he will be challenged when he presents his findings to other archaeologists at the American Schools of Oriental Research and the Society of Biblical Literature in Philadelphia in the coming weeks.

Sources: John Noble Wilford, “A Is for Ancient, Describing an Alphabet Found Near Jerusalem,” The New York Times, (November 9, 2005)