A 3,500 year old inscription recently unearthed in Tel Lachish is the oldest piece of writing ever found in Israel and offers unprecedented insights into the development of the first alphabets, a study published in the journal Antiquity revealed on Thursday.The writing, a combination of six letters on two distinct lines, is featured on a pottery sherd found at the site, located in the Shephelah region of south-central Israel.
The artifact was discovered in 2018 during excavations conducted by the Austrian Archaeological Institute at the Austrian Academy of Sciences.“Our excavation started in 2017,” said Dr. Felix Höflmayer, lead author of the paper and co-director of the excavation at Tel Lachish. “We have been looking into obtaining a radiocarbon sequence for the transition from the Middle to the Late Bronze Age.”
Tel Lachish is one of the most important archaeological sites in Israel. During that period – around the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE – it was a Canaanite center.The city is also mentioned several times in the Bible. According to the Book of Joshua, the Israelites destroyed it as they conquered the Land of Israel at the end of their wanderings in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt.Lachish later became an important Israelite city in the Kingdom of Judah, until it was destroyed by the Assyrians in the 7th century BCE.The inscription was dated very precisely to 3,500 years ago, thanks to the numerous organic samples collected with it, such as seeds, which allowed the researchers to employ radiocarbon dating.“Another inscription was found in the 1930s, which some believe might go back to 100 years earlier, but because it was excavated such a long time ago, it is not possible to use radiocarbon dating,” Höflmayer explained. “Moreover, many experts have doubts regarding the alphabet script used.”The new finding is especially significant because it narrows the gap between the earliest testimonies of alphabetic script uncovered in the Sinai region and more recent evidence of Semitic alphabets.“We know that the early alphabet was invented in Sinai in approximately the 19th century BCE,” he said. “It resurfaced in southern Levant much later, only around the 13th and 12th centuries, but we had no clues about what happened between these two periods.”Before the discovery of the inscription, experts believed that writing might have been brought by Egyptians to the Levant, as archaeologists often referred to an area that includes modern Israel, Palestinian territories, parts of Lebanon, and Jordan. “In the Late Bronze Age, between 1550 and 1200 BCE, the region was under the Egyptian empire,” said Höflmayer. “The Egyptians imposed their administrative system and their own writing, and many experts thought that the early alphabet might have been introduced in this context. But now we can see that it was already in use at least by the 15th century BCE, when there was not such large-scale Egyptian domination.”Höflmayer said that even though the letters identified on the sherd bear names and compose words that might sound familiar to a modern Hebrew speaker, the alphabet was not the Hebrew alphabet, but rather an alphabet from which the Hebrew one would evolve centuries later.The inscription bears letters that the researchers identified as ayin, bet and daled, (e-v-d) forming a word that can be “eved” – which back then, as well as in modern Hebrew, means “slave.” The second word deciphered on the sherd features nun-peh-tav, (n-p-t) or “nectar.”“All alphabets have somewhat evolved from hieroglyphs, the Phoenician one, the Hebrew one, the Greek one, the Latin one and so on,” Höflmayer said. “Now we know that the alphabet was not brought to the Levant by the Egyptian rule. Although we cannot really explain yet how it happened, we can say that it was much earlier and under different social circumstances.”