The Divine Name—the tetragrammaton—yod, he, waw, he—YHVH—Yahweh—LORD—sometimes rendered in English Jehovah—has been found in the Holy City, Jerusalem, for the first time in an archaeological excavation.
Dating to the end of the seventh or sixth century B.C., the prayer-like inscription containing the Divine Name was scratched on a tiny amulet—a rolled-up strip of silver.
Jerusalem is the most excavated site in the Holy Land. Indeed, some excavations are still in progress. Nevertheless, the number of inscribed objects from the First Temple Period (which ended with the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.) is very limited. The few inscriptions that have been found were carved in stone or written on potsherds.
The reasons for this paucity are not difficult to understand. Inscriptions on less durable materials like papyrus have long since disintegrated. Moreover, Jerusalem has been destroyed many times. Each time, a new city was built on the remains. There are no occupational gaps in its 5,000-year history. And today’s Jerusalem is built on the remains of the ancient city. It is therefore not surprising that the ancient treasures described in the books of the Old Testament have long since vanished. Even in excavations, precious metals as well as inscriptions are rare. This makes our find doubly rare.
In 1979 we began our small excavation on a site we named the “Shoulder of Hinnom.” It is one of the most beautiful locations in all Jerusalem, on the watershed ridge that runs through the central part of the country. Our site is at the point where this ridge—and the highway that runs along it—passes closest to Jerusalem. Anyone traveling to the city from the south would leave the highway at this point to descend into the Hinnom Valley in order to arrive at Jerusalem itself. From our site we could see the Hinnom Valley to the east and the slopes of the Valley of Rephaim to the west, on the ancient border between Judah and Benjamin, as recorded in the book of Joshua (Joshua 15:8; Joshua 18:16). The early morning views from the site are breathtaking. Along with the half-awake volunteers, I often marveled at the beauty of the sunrise over the city. Located south of the King David Hotel, opposite Mt. Zion, our excavation area has an excellent view not only of the magnificent landscape of the Hinnom Valley but also of the walls of the Old City to the northeast and the Siloam village and Judean wilderness to the southeast. At certain stages of the dig, we had to work around the clock, enabling us to see the city in its many different moods.
The actual excavation was on a rocky knoll east of Jerusalem’s railway station and beside the Scottish Presbyterian Church of St. Andrew.
The 1979 season was undertaken with the help of students from BAR’s Israel Seminar. The excavation was carried out under the auspices of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, with the assistance of individuals and other organizations, including the Israel Exploration Society and BAR. The excavation continued for another full season in 1980, with further help from the Yad Hanadiv Foundation. The dig staff was composed of archaeology students from Tel Aviv University and the American Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem under my directorship. Hard-working volunteers, both from Israel and from abroad, did the actual digging. Our work included excavation of a series of burial caves hewn at the end of the Davidic dynasty—in approximately the seventh century B.C. In two seasons we uncovered one of the richest treasures of small finds ever to appear in an archaeological excavation in Jerusalem. We discovered artifacts from many periods—Iron Age, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Turkish-Ottoman, and even more recent times.
One burial cave with unusual architectural features held a special surprise. Under one of the burial benches in this cave we found a large, undisturbed repository—a hollow area hewn under the burial bench. Burial in a repository like this was customary in Judah during the Davidic dynasty. Initially the body of the deceased was laid on the hewn stone burial bench inside the cave. Later, to make room for subsequent burials, the bones of the deceased were collected and placed in the repository, along with the deceased’s burial gifts. In this way, generations that followed were buried in the same burial cave as their ancestors. This is the meaning of the Biblical expression, “He was gathered unto his fathers” (e.g. Judges 2:10; 2 Chronicles 34:28). The bones of the deceased were literally placed with those of the fathers in the repository under the burial bench.
One of the repositories we discovered is the first and only intact, undisturbed repository ever uncovered in Jerusalem. It contained approximately 700 items, including burial gifts of pottery vessels, jewelry (of which over 100 pieces were silver), arrowheads, bone and ivory artifacts, alabaster vessels, 150 beads of various sizes, colors and materials, one piece of pre-blown glass, and one rare, early coin. Indeed, this is the earliest coin ever found in the Holy Land. Minted on the Aegean island of Cos and dating to the sixth century B.C., the coin depicts a crab.
The excavation of the undisturbed repository was admirably supervised by Gordon Franz of the American Institute of Holy Land Studies. On one occasion we had to work for 19 continuous hours—right through the night. This short report is only a preliminary note for BAR readers, who will receive a more inclusive report in a future issue.
Among the rich finds of the repository were two small, rolled-up strips of silver. Similar artifacts are completely unknown elsewhere in the archaeology of this period. The first of the silver objects was found by Judy Hadley of Wheaton College; the second appeared during the sifting of excavated dirt. Although they were excavated three years ago, the two silver rolls were only recently opened by the laboratory of the Israel Museum, after having undergone a preliminary cleaning in the laboratories of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University. The silver rolls were opened with a new technique, developed especially for these two rolls by Joseph “Dodo” Shenhav, Director of the Israel Museum Laboratory. Deciding how to unroll the strips presented difficult questions. However, a few weeks ago, I received a telephone call from a very excited Yaakov Meshorer, Curator of Numismatics at the Israel Museum. The museum laboratory, he informed me, had successfully opened the first silver roll. With his experience examining tiny coin inscriptions, Dr. Meshorer immediately saw that the unrolled object was covered with ancient Hebrew characters. Meshorer was the first to identify the Divine Name written on it. I rushed to the Israel Museum the next morning, unable to contain my excitement. When I saw the unrolled silver strip and placed it under the magnifying glass, I could see that the surface was covered with 018delicately made characters, scratched with a sharp instrument onto the very thin and fragile sheet of silver. The roll was corroded on the edges; it contained some cracks, and small pieces of it were missing; the cracks and missing pieces resulted from the work of agents of nature during its long stay in the repository.
The Divine Name that clearly appears in the inscription is composed of the four Hebrew characters written in ancient Hebrew script, yod-he-waw-he, commonly written Yahweh and sometimes pronounced Jehovah. The Divine Name appears in the Old Testament over 6,800 times, yet this is its first appearance on an archaeological find from the city of Jerusalem—the city where the Lord’s Temple was built—though the Divine Name does appear on archaeological finds outside Jerusalem (some examples are the Lachish Lettersa, the Arad Letters, finds at Kuntillet Ajrud (Khorvat Teiman) in the Sinaib, and cave walls in the Judean hills). The length of the Divine Name in our 019inscription is 10.9 mm (0.43 inch). The dimensions of the whole strip when unrolled are 97 mm (3.82 inches) in length, by 27 mm (1.06 inches) in width. The second strip, which is much smaller, was opened later and measures 39 mm (1.54 inches) in length, and 11 mm (0.43 inch) in width. It is also covered with densely scratched characters in the ancient Hebrew script.
The scribe who wrote on the strips in antiquity scratched them without much pressure, so the inscriptions sit only on the surface. It will take a long time before we are able to decipher these two texts. We can now say only that the texts are prayer-like, or amuletic in nature.
The dating of the two inscribed, rolled silver strips to the end of the seventh or to the sixth century B.C. is fixed mainly by the archaeological context within which they were discovered. This dating is established primarily by the association of the amulets with a rich assemblage of datable pottery totaling more than 300 pieces, found in the repository with the amulets. Additional evidence for the date of the strips is paleographic; the script seems to be typical of the seventh or sixth century B.C. if we compare it to other dated inscriptions.
The pottery indicates that the burial cave continued to be used after the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar the Babylonian in 587 B.C. It seems very possible, since most of the objects are dated after 587 B.C., that these two silver strips date to the days following the city’s destruction. This may have important historical implications.
The prophet Jeremiah was an eyewitness to the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. Yet neither the book of Jeremiah nor other books of the Bible provide much information about this period in Jerusalem’s history—probably because of the trauma and shock caused by the destruction of the city. In the minds of the Jews the holy city of Jerusalem was indestructible. Now they knew differently. One reference in the book of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 41:5) relates that the Jews cherished the physical remains of Jerusalem by visiting the ruins of the Temple. Our silver amulet with the name of the Lord and the other finds from the repository possibly indicate that Jews continued their contacts with Jerusalem after the destruction of the city and the First Temple.
These rolled silver amulets are only two items from a very rich dig that revealed numerous finds from many different periods. Written objects such as these are like direct messages from ancient Jerusalemites to us in modern times. Historically, they may shed new light on popular religion of late Old Testament times. The bearer needed such a prayerlike text to wear in his lifetime, and people felt it appropriate that such objects should accompany their owner to the next world. The practice of writing amuletic texts on rolled metal strips is well-known in later periods: Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Medieval, and even in more recent times. Now this practice is attested even in earlier times. This is an especially welcome find since it comes from ancient Jerusalem, from the days of the prophets, and even more so because it is written on a unique object, unparalleled in archaeological finds discovered in the Holy Land to this day.
Contributions from BAR Readers Requested
BAR, through the aid of its readers, intends to continue to support this exciting and important Jerusalem excavation. There is every reason to believe that other undisturbed repositories can be uncovered. If you are willing to be a part of this project, please send your contribution—in whatever amount—to “Biblical Archaeology Society—Jerusalem Dig,” 5400 Greystone Street, Chevy Chase, Maryland 20815. Donors of $50 or more will receive a stunning poster of Jerusalem. All donors will be listed in a future issue of BAR, unless they request anonymity. All contributions are tax-deductible. Please be generous!
The Divine Name—the tetragrammaton—yod, he, waw, he—YHVH—Yahweh—LORD—sometimes rendered in English Jehovah—has been found in the Holy City, Jerusalem, for the first time in an archaeological excavation. Dating to the end of the seventh or sixth century B.C., the prayer-like inscription containing the Divine Name was scratched on a tiny amulet—a rolled-up strip of silver. Jerusalem is the most excavated site in the Holy Land. Indeed, some excavations are still in progress. Nevertheless, the number of inscribed objects from the First Temple Period (which ended with the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.) is very limited. The few inscriptions […]