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The Tel Zayit Inscription:
An Archaeological Benchmark in the History of Writing

The nearly eight-acre site of Tel Zayit lies in the strategic Beth Guvrin Valley in the lowlands region of ancient Judah approximately seven kilometers north and two kilometers west of Lachish, 30 kilometers east of Ashkelon, and 29 kilometers west of Hebron. Since 1999, exploration at the site has proceeded under the direction of Dr. Ron E. Tappy and the institutional sponsorship of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, with major funding from a generous private donor. The project is also affiliated with the American Schools of Oriental Research in the United States and the W. F. Albright Institute for Archaeological Research in Jerusalem.

On July 15, 2005, the last day of the excavation season, excavators found embedded in a wall a 38-pound limestone boulder with two lines of incised letters on one side and a large, bowl-shaped hollow on the other. The inscription is an abecedary, that is, the letters of the alphabet written out from beginning to end in their traditional sequence. The importance of this discovery derives not only from its archaic alphabetic text, which raises the possibility that formal scribal training at the outlying site of Tel Zayit was a result of a developing Israelite bureaucracy in Jerusalem, but also from the stone's firmly datable archaeological contextan extremely rare occurrence among the few extant inscriptions of this nature.

The stone bearing the Tel Zayit Inscription comprised part of a wall belonging to a structure that dates to the late tenth century BCE and suffered heavy destruction by fire sometime in that period. (Ironically, the inscribed stone might have been built into the wall because of the ancient belief in the alphabet's magical or apotropaic power, that is, its ability to ward off evil.) Multiple deposits overlaying and sealing the destruction debris accumulated to a depth of over one meter and represent two distinct building levels (with the latest one also ending in a conflagration) and three related sub-phases ranging from the ninth through the early eighth centuries BCE. This secure archaeological context provides a firm date before which the stone-walled structure must have been built and the inscription must have been incised. Stratigraphy, ceramic studies, radiocarbon dating, evidence of tectonic activity (damage from an earthquake during the time of Amos the prophet), and now palaeography (the study of ancient writing) have combined to help determine a precise date for the archaeological level that yielded the inscription.

Located in the ancient lowlands district of Judah, the site of Tel Zayit served as a borderland settlement that guarded one of the main approaches into the hill country around and south of Jerusalem. Though the part of the site where the inscription was found has only begun to be studied, preliminary results suggest that in the tenth century BCE Tel Zayit was associated with the highland culture of southern Canaan, not the coastal culture of the Philistine plain, and therefore it very well may have functioned as part of the new state being formed by Kings David and Solomon, with its capital at Jerusalem. The early appearance of literacy at Tel Zayit will play a pivotal role in the current discussion of the archaeology and history of Israel and Judah in the tenth century BCEa century about which there is currently hot debate among archaeologists of Israel, in large part due to the paucity of epigraphic data concerning this era.

The Israelites adapted their alphabet (Hebrew, written from right to left) from that of the Phoenicians, and although several tenth-century Phoenician inscriptions are known, very few examples from this early period have been found inland, where the alphabet was evolving in the direction of Hebrew and (farther north) Aramaic. The Tel Zayit Inscription, therefore, represents an extremely important landmark in the history of alphabetic writing. All successive alphabets in the ancient world (including non-Semitic ones, such as Greek) derived from the alphabet seen in the Tel Zayit Inscription. In fact, the letters of the very words that you are reading right now descended directly from the letters seen on the stone from Tel Zayit!

The New York Times broke the story of the Tel Zayit Inscription on November 9, 2005. On November 20, 2005, Dr. Tappy (Director of The Zeitah Excavations and G. Albert Shoemaker Professor of Bible and Archaeology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary) and epigrapher P. Kyle McCarter (William Foxwell Albright Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University) described the archaeology relating to the discovery of the stone and analyzed the writing on it during a special session at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature at the Philadelphia Convention Center in Pennsylvania. Their lecture was entitled "The Tel Zayit Stone: A New Tenth-Century BCE Inscription from the Judaean Shephelah." A question-and-answer period followed the lecture and featured a panel that included the epigraphic photography team of Bruce Zuckerman (University of Southern California) and Marilyn Lundberg (West Semitic Research Project), who addressed questions related to the specialized techniques they employed in photographing the inscription. Professor Lawrence E. Stager (Harvard University) presided.

In addition, Professors Tappy and McCarter presented their lecture at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary on Thursday, December 8, at 7:30 p.m. in Hicks Memorial Chapel Auditorium and in many other venues around the country.

The Zeitah Excacvations and the Tel Zayit Abecedary will be featured in a PBS NOVA special television presentation, "The Bible's Buried Secrets," on November 18, 2008, 8:0010:00 p.m.

The Tel Zayit Inscription research team includes the following individuals:

Ron E. Tappy, Principal Investigator
Director, The Zeitah Excavations
G. Albert Shoemaker Professor of Bible and Archaeology
Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

P. Kyle McCarter
William Foxwell Albright Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Studies
Johns Hopkins University

Bruce Zuckerman
Professor, School of Religion, and Director, Archaeological Research Collection
University of Southern California
Director, West Semitic Research and InscriptiFact Projects

Marilyn J. Lundberg, Ph.D.
Associate Director, West Semitic Research Project
Associate Editor, MAARAV


Ron E. Tappy, Project Director
Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Sponsor
616 North Highland Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15206

E-mail tappy@fyi.net     Phone: 412-441-3304 x2126    Fax: 412-486-0776

The Zeitah Excavations
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