A little more than a year ago, we reported on a new excavation (directed by the Hebrew University’s Yosef Garfinkel and Saar Ganor) of an imposing Israelite fort on the border with Philistia dating to the late 11th–early tenth century B.C.E., the time of David and Solomon.a It was occupied during this period only and was then abandoned (until the Hellenistic period), so there is no question about the dating—and the implications are considerable.
The circular casemate wall around the hilltop fort required more than 200,000 tons of boulders. Some of the megalithic ashlars in the city’s carefully designed four-chambered gates weigh almost 5 tons. Try lifting these. It took a well-organized, technologically proficient state society to construct something like this. This fort was not built by some tribal chiefdom. Qeiyafa is thus a powerful antidote to scholars like Tel Aviv University’s Israel Finkelstein, who claims that Judah never existed as a state in the tenth century and that the “Kingdom” of David and Solomon was a tribal chiefdom at most.
Although the ancient name of Qeiyafa is not known for certain, it was very probably Sha‘araim. Sha‘araim means “two gates” in Hebrew. In the 2009 excavation season, a second four-chambered gate was discovered in the fortress wall. Qeiyafa is the only contender for Sha‘araim with two gates; all the other sites of the period have only a single city gate. The Bible notes that Philistine warriors were felled by the Israelites on the road to Sha‘araim (1 Samuel 17:52).
The pièce de résistance of the Qeiyafa excavation was found in a substantial structure near the first city gate discovered. It is a five-line, 6-by-6-inch ostracon, an inscription on a broken piece of pottery used as a kind of ancient notepaper. Garfinkel assigned Hebrew University paleographer Haggai Misgav to read and decipher the dim, badly preserved text. Garfinkel believes the language is Hebrew. And the date is clear—early tenth century B.C.E. In Garfinkel’s view, therefore, the Qeiyafa ostracon is the oldest Hebrew inscription ever discovered.
This ostracon has further implications, however: It establishes Hebrew literacy in the Israelite population as early as the kingdoms of David and Solomon.
When I was preparing my earlier BAR article on Qeiyafa, I asked Yossi Garfinkel for a picture of the ostracon so everyone could participate in its decipherment, instead of just Haggai Misgav and his colleagues and friends. But Yossi turned me down. A picture of the faded inscription would not be released until its official publication by the excavation.
I was critical of this decision in my earlier article. Yossi’s response was to assure a very prompt publication of the first two seasons of excavation (2008–2009), the English edition of which is already being printed as I write. In addition, Yossi gave the plenary lecture at BAR’s Bible and Archaeology Fest in November in New Orleans, during which he flashed on the screen completely visible pictures of the inscription and explained what had been learned so far.
Haggai Misgav was scheduled to give a scholarly lecture on the ostracon inscription at the simultaneous scholarly meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in New Orleans. Unfortunately, his mother passed away just before he was scheduled to leave for the States, so his paper was read to a large band of scholars sitting on the edge of their seats.
Based on these sources (including a not-quite-out copy of the printed excavation report), we can now report details regarding the inscription—at least so far as has presently been discovered by Misgav and the scholars he has consulted. And we are grateful to Yossi and Haggai for releasing a photograph and drawing of the text to us. If any of you have new ideas, please let BAR or Yossi or Haggai know.
Unfortunately, with all the modern technical advances in photography, as well as in epigraphy and paleography, we cannot get a meaningful reconstruction of the text of this inscription. The letters are just too faint or not there at all. Moreover, one side of the ostracon is broken off. And the upper part of the ostracon, the beginning of the text, is also missing. So we’re not even sure what kind of text it is.
The letters are what scholars call Proto-Canaanite or Proto-Sinaitic. Essentially, they are the same crude alphabetic letter forms derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs, as described by Orly Goldwasser in her article in this issue; that is, the letters are still pictorial, basically pictures.
Each of the five lines of text in the ostracon has a horizontal line beneath it. Misgav notes that these display lines also appear in some of the alphabetic inscriptions in the similar pictorial script from Serabit el-Khadem (also in the article by Orly Goldwasser in this issue).
Misgav describes the subsequent development of this pictorial alphabetic script found at Serabit el-Khadem and elsewhere:
The next phase in the development of the alphabetic system was identified in Byblos, on the northern coast of Lebanon; this script was labeled Phoenician. This was the phase during which the alphabetic script was stripped of all its pictographic qualities.
Earlier scripts, like those described in Orly Goldwasser’s article, were written in various directions, including vertical. The Qeiyafa inscription appears to have been written left-to-right, although Hebrew later adopted a right-to-left direction. The letterforms, too, of the Qeiyafa inscription had not yet been completely standardized. The “A”-shaped aleph (
Although this is the longest inscription of its kind, it does not yield its meaning easily. It is written in ink, rather than engraved like some other inscriptions of this period, for example, the abecedary from Izbet Sartah.b The ravages of time are thus more evident in this five-line inscription than in an engraved inscription.
Although we’re not sure what the text is, we can be sure what it is not. It is not a commercial or business document. There is a missing letter in the first line. Depending on what letter is reconstructed in this space, the word could mean, on the one hand, “to exploit or abuse,” or, on the other hand, “to make wealthy.” In either case, according to Misgav, this places the text “in the realm of ethics and justice.”
Another phrase in this line includes a word formed from the root
The closest language to Hebrew at this time was Phoenician. Another root in the inscription (
A word in the second line may be read “judge” or “rule” (
A word in the third line reads “Baal” (
The word melekh (
The fifth line is, as Misgav notes, “replete with damaged letters.”
In summary, Misgav concludes:
The inscription begins with several words of command which may be judicial or ethical in content … The end of the inscription contains words which may relate to the area of politics or government. It is difficult to extract more meaning from this text at the present stage. We can determine, however, that the text has continuity of meaning, and is not merely a list of unconnected words. It is phrased as a message from one person to another. We cannot know if this is a private or public document, although it does appear to be part of some correspondence.
The writer of the text was a professional. In light of this data, and assuming this was a royal fortress from the early days of the United Monarchy, such a letter found close to the gates of the city testifies to the presence of literate administrators in the city despite its modest size.
In short, if this was all present in the tenth century at the site of Khirbet Qeiyafa, out in the boonies, just imagine what was happening in Jerusalem.
A little more than a year ago, we reported on a new excavation (directed by the Hebrew University’s Yosef Garfinkel and Saar Ganor) of an imposing Israelite fort on the border with Philistia dating to the late 11th–early tenth century B.C.E., the time of David and Solomon.a It was occupied during this period only and was then abandoned (until the Hellenistic period), so there is no question about the dating—and the implications are considerable. 052 The circular casemate wall around the hilltop fort required more than 200,000 tons of boulders. Some of the megalithic ashlars in the city’s carefully […]