Five lines of ancient script on a shard of pottery could be the oldest example of Hebrew writing ever discovered, an archaeologist in Israel says.
The shard was found by a teenage volunteer during a dig about 20km (12 miles) south-west of Jerusalem.
Experts at Hebrew University said dating showed it was written 3,000 years ago – about 1,000 years earlier than the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Other scientists cautioned that further study was needed to understand it.
Preliminary investigations since the shard was found in July have deciphered some words, including judge, slave and king.
The characters are written in proto-Canaanite, a precursor of the Hebrew alphabet.
But his colleagues at Hebrew University said the Israelites were not the only ones using proto-Canaanite characters, therefore making it difficult to prove it was Hebrew and not a related tongue spoken in the area at the time.
Hebrew University archaeologist Amihai Mazar said the inscription was “very important”, as it is the longest proto-Canaanite text ever found.
“The differentiation between the scripts, and between the languages themselves in that period, remains unclear,” he said.
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Archaeologists in Israel said on Thursday they had unearthed the oldest Hebrew text ever found, while excavating a fortress city overlooking a valley where the Bible says David slew Goliath.
The dig’s uncovering of the past near the ancient battlefield in the Valley of Elah, now home to wineries and a satellite station, could have implications for the emotional debate over the future of Jerusalem, some 20 km (12 miles) away.
Archaeologists from the Hebrew University said they found five lines of text written in black ink on a shard of pottery dug up at a five-acre (two-hectare) site called Elah Fortress, or Khirbet Qeiyafa.
Experts have not yet been able to decipher the text fully, but carbon dating of artifacts found at the site indicates the Hebrew inscription was written about 3,000 years ago, predating the Dead Sea Scrolls by 1,000 years, the archaeologists said.
Several words, including “judge,” “slave” and “king,” could be identified and the experts said they hoped the text would shed light on how alphabetic scripts developed.
In a finding that could have symbolic value for Israel, the archaeologists said other items discovered at the fortress dig indicated there was most likely a strong king and central government in Jerusalem during the period scholars believe that David ruled the holy city and ancient Israel.
The Israelites were not the only ones using proto-Canaanite characters, and other scholars suggest it is difficult – perhaps impossible – to conclude the text is Hebrew and not a related tongue spoken in the area at the time. Garfinkel bases his identification on a three-letter verb from the inscription meaning to do, a word he said existed only in Hebrew.
“That leads us to believe that this is Hebrew, and that this is the oldest Hebrew inscription that has been found,” he said.
Other prominent Biblical archaeologists warned against jumping to conclusions.
Hebrew University archaeologist Amihai Mazar said the inscription was very important, as it is the longest proto-Canaanite text ever found. But he suggested that calling the text Hebrew might be going too far.
“It’s proto-Canaanite,” he said. “The differentiation between the scripts, and between the languages themselves in that period, remains unclear.”