The most recent issue of Buried History, the journal of the Australian Institute of Archaeology, features an article by Alan Millard of the University of Liverpool, England, on important archaeological finds that were found by accident.1 Millard cautions against drawing conclusions “from what has not been discovered.”

One of Millard’s examples is the famous Tel Dan inscription, a stele that mentions the “House (Dynasty) of David”; it was commissioned by a non-Israelite king barely a century after King David lived. Before the “House of David” inscription was discovered, even the bare name David, let alone a reference to him as king, was unattested in any ancient inscription. Based on the fact that no one named David had ever been discovered from anywhere within centuries of David’s time, some Biblical minimalists argued that the Biblical David was a fictional character with about the same claim to being historical as King Arthur.

The first and major piece of the Tel Dan inscription, Millard notes, was found in re-use as a stone in a wall. It was recovered only “because a member of the expedition saw the incised stroke of the letters on a broken stone lit up momentarily by the setting sun … Had it been laid facing the other way, it would have escaped notice.”

As it happens, I recently visited Tel Dan with the woman who discovered the inscription. Gila Cook is the long-time surveyor of the dig. It was she who saw it first. Her retelling of the moment emphasizes just how accidental the find was.

Gila herself does not actually excavate. She draws and measures what the team has excavated. But she was not even drawing or measuring when she discovered the inscription. And it was not even during the excavation season. Avraham Biran, the dig director, was driving up from Jerusalem to show the site to a visitor. Gila had some surveying work to finish, so she asked if she could go along with Biran. At the time—1993—the distinguished, universally admired archaeologist was 83. Today he is 95 and has retired. Gila always refers to him as Dr. Biran.

While Biran showed the visitor the site, Gila went about her unfinished measuring. She brought her surveying equipment with her. Her level, set on a tripod was bulky, especially with the other equipment and boards she was carrying.

Biran finished showing the site to the visitor, who then left in his own car. Biran called for Gila to gather her equipment and come down the hill to get into the car for the return trip to Jerusalem. As she walked down, she stopped to rearrange her load, placing the level and tripod on a large stone of a recently excavated ancient wall. (The photo at right shows Cook later standing next to the stone.)

It was that accident—placing the level and tripod on the wall—that was the stroke of fortune, enabling her to notice the inscribed stone within the wall as she picked up her equipment.

She was stunned. Her instant reaction was to call to Biran: “Bo,” she yelled. It is the curt Hebrew instruction to kids to come. It was not even the more polite “Bo-na”—Come, please. No “Dr. Biran” this time.

Biran came running. Gila pointed to the letters. Biran, a native Israeli going back three generations whose first language is Hebrew, looked down and exclaimed in English: “Oh, my God!”

And so the Tel Dan “House of David” inscription was discovered. Shortly thereafter, it was on the front page of the New York Times.—H.S.