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Oldest Known Writing Discovered in Jerusalem

August 2nd 2010

Archaeology Topics - akkadian cuneiform sample
A Sample of Akkadian Cuneiform

On July 12 the Hebrew University announced that a little clay fragment with the oldest known writing in Jerusalem had been discovered. From the late Bronze Age, it is considered a major discovery in Israel’s archeological community. The soil in which the fragment was found was taken from the fill excavated from beneath a 10th century B.C.E. tower dating from the period of King Solomon, at the Ophel area, located between the southern wall of the Old City of Jerusalem and the City of David.

The discovery was made by the team working under Dr. Eilat Mazar. The granddaughter of the late Professor of Archeology Binyamin Mazar, she is referred to as a “biblical archeologist,” as she uses the Bible as her blueprint. In 2008 Mazar told the Jerusalem Post, which had chosen her as one of their People of the Year, “I work with the Bible in one hand and the tools of excavation in the other. The Bible is the most important historical source.”

She is the author of The Complete Guide to the Temple Mount Excavations (2002), and among her recent finds is a 3,000-year-old wall from the time of Solomon. In 2008 she discovered a 2,600-year-old clay seal impression (“bulla”) bearing the name Gedaliah ben Pashur. The name appears in the Book of Jeremiah (38:1). She has been outspoken about the Moslem Waqf’s destruction of archeological evidence and artifacts from the First and Second Temples.

The young woman who literally found the fragment is Ephrat Greenwald, 27, currently of Jerusalem, originally from Efrat, Gush Etzion. She was the head of Mazar’s sifting crew. Her responsibilities included keeping track of what was found and where, and training new sifters.

On the morning of March 11, when the discovery was made, Greenwald’s regular work was slow, she said, so she decided “to grab a bucket and sift.” In the first bucketful she noticed something that was “different than anything I had ever seen before. It had some kind of writing carved into it.” Mazar was summoned from Hebrew University and, the moment she saw the little piece of clay, declared it a significant find. On July 12, four months later, the find was made public, after it had been examined and assessed by all the relevant experts.

Two Centimeters of History and Politics

The tiny piece of clay, from the 14th century B.C.E., is 2x2.8 centimeters in size and one centimeter thick. It has letters carved in it in cuneiform script, the earliest known form of writing, in ancient Akkadian. The script was deciphered by Prof. Wayne Horowitz, a scholar of Assyriology at the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology, along with his former graduate student Dr. Takayoshi Oshima. Horowitz says that the script was probably written by a highly skilled scribe who prepared tablets for the royal household of the time.

According to the Hebrew University, the clay tablet is 600 years older than the most ancient known written record previously found in Jerusalem. It is believed to be contemporary with the some 380 tablets discovered in the 19th century at Amarna in Egypt in the archives of Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten). Those tablets revealed complex relations that existed between the Pharaoh and the kings who were subservient to him in Canaan and Syria.

Mazar says that this tablet is most likely part of a message that would have been sent from the king of Jerusalem, possibly Abdi-Heba, back to Egypt. She says that this new discovery lends weight to the importance that accrued to Jerusalem in later times, leading up to its conquest by King David in the 10th century B.C.E.

Living History

The sifters at digs such as these are either students of archeology or young people who love the excitement of the exploration and discovery. Greenwald’s B.A. studies were in the Behavioral Sciences at Ariel College. But, she says, “I was always interested in archeology and I just wanted the chance to dig.”

The writer is the mother of Ephrat Greenwald. She is the director of the Raise Your Spirits biblical theatre and editor-in-chief of WholeFamily.com. A version appeared on Aish.com.

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