Courtesy Yosef Garfinkel and Haggai Misgav

ELUSIVE AND ENIGMATIC, the text written in ink on this broken pottery sherd (called an ostracon) has been partially deciphered by Hebrew University paleographer Haggai Misgav. As the earliest example of a Hebrew inscription, it sheds light on the development of writing and the alphabet among early Israelites. Unlike later (and modern) Hebrew, the lines read left-to-right, and some of the letterforms are still fluid, such as the aleph, which faces different directions in different parts of the same inscription (highlighted in orange). Misgav has been able to read several words (highlighted in blue), including “Do not do” and “serve” (line 1), “judge” or “rule” (line 2), the name or part of a name “Baal” (line 3), and “king” (line 4), all of which leads him to describe it as a text clearly “in the realm of ethics and justice,” rather than commerce or business. But the badly degraded writing leaves many questions about the original meaning and purpose of the inscription.