Monday, July 12, 2010

14th c. BCE cuneiform fragment found in Jerusalem

Oldest written document ever found

By BEN HARTMAN (Jerusalem Post)
07/12/2010 01:56

Archeologists unearth 14th century BCE fragment.

Hebrew University excavations recently unearthed a clay fragment dating back to the 14th century BCE, said to be the oldest written document ever found in Jerusalem.

The tiny fragment is only 2 cm. by 2.8 cm. in surface area and 1 cm. thick and appears to have once been part of a larger tablet. Researchers say the ancient fragment testifies to Jerusalem’s importance as a major city late in the Bronze Age, long before it was conquered by King David.

The minuscule fragment contains Akkadian words written in ancient cuneiform symbols. Researchers say that while the symbols appear to be insignificant, containing simply the words “you,” “you were,” “them,” “to do,” and “later,” the high quality of the writing indicates that it was written by a highly skilled scribe. Such a revelation would mean that the piece was likely written for tablets that were part of a royal household.

The find was uncovered in a fill taken from the Ophel area, which lies between the Old City’s southern wall and the City of David. The Ophel digs are being carried out by Dr. Eilat Mazar of the Hebrew University Institute of Archeology, through funding from US donors Daniel Mintz and Meredith Berkman of New York.

According to Mazar, the fragment was discovered over a month and a half ago during wet sifting of the Ophel excavations, but was only released to the press this week because researchers wanted to wait until analysis of the piece was complete so as to be absolutely certain of the details of the find.

The most ancient piece of writing found in Jerusalem before the Ophel fragment was a tablet unearthed in the Shiloah water in the City of David, dating back to the eighth century BCE – nearly 600 years “younger” than the Ophel find.
First of all, boo to the Jerusalem Post for the sensationalist headline. The oldest written document found in Jerusalem is not the oldest document found anywhere by a long shot. Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphic texts go back something like fifteen hundred years earlier.

Second, although this fragment is the oldest text discovered in Jerusalem, we have other texts of the same age from Jerusalem which were found in Egypt among the Amarna letters. The six Akkadian letters from Abdi-Heba, the king(let) of Jerusalem, to the Pharaoh of Egypt also date to the fourteenth century BCE. So this find doesn't tell us much that we didn't already know, although it is exciting actually to find a cuneiform table in Jerusalem, even if it is only a small piece whose text doesn't give any connected sense.

(I no longer try to keep up with Akkadian studies, so the links above are for general information only. I make no claims about their detailed accuracy or the accuracy of the translation of the letter.)
Hebrew University Prof. Wayne Horowitz, a scholar of Assyriology, deciphered the script with the assistance of his former graduate student Dr.

Takayoshi Oshima. Horowitz said that while the script was too broken to get context out of it, the quality of the writing gave some indication of the creator’s pedigree.

“What we can see is that the piece was written in very good script and the tablet was constructed very well. This indicates that the person responsible for creating the tablet was a first-class scribe.

In those days, you would expect to find a first-class scribe only in a large, important place,” he said.

According to Horowitz, the high quality of the tablet piece indicates that it was most likely part of a message sent from a then-king of Jerusalem to the pharaoh in Egypt.

Horowitz said that the fragment, which is made of Jerusalem clay, indicated that Jerusalem was one of the central cities of the area at the time.

“This shows Jerusalem was not a provincial backwater, [but] one of the main cities of the area,” he said.
I'm not sure whether the quality of the script and tablets from the Amarna correspondence already told us this information or whether it is new to this find. I would like to see the claims about the centrality of Jerusalem put into the context of what we know already about fourteenth-century Jerusalem from the Amarna correspondence.

It's interesting that a letter apparently from Jerusalem ("made of Jerusalem clay") and presumably sent elsewhere was found in Jerusalem. An archive copy?
Mazar called the fragment “one of the most important finds we’ve ever had” and said she hoped it would lead to further big discoveries.

“A piece this small wouldn’t have been sitting there all by itself; there have to be more pieces like it,” she said.

One would hope so. There must be cuneiform archives from this period somewhere in Israel and sooner or later one will be found. Yadin thought he knew where the Late Bronze Age archive was at Hazor and he was about to look for it when he died. So far, a quarter of a century later and after more excavations at Hazor, the archive hasn't been found.

Note also that Duane Smith has a recent blog post that ties this new fragment to his earlier extensive discussions of the relevant Amarna letters and other contemporary cuneiform evidence from Palestine.

UPDATE (15 July): More here