Hirbet Qeiyafa sits near the city of Beit Shemesh in the Judean
foothills, an area that was once the frontier between the hill-dwelling Israelites and their enemies, the coastal Philistines. The site overlooks the Elah Valley, said to be the scene of the slingshot showdown between David and the Philistine giant Goliath, and lies near the ruins of Goliath’s hometown in the Philistine metropolis of Gath.
A teenage volunteer found the curved pottery shard, 15 centimeters by 15 centimeters, in July near the stairs and stone washtub of an excavated home. It was later discovered to bear five lines of characters known as proto-Canaanite, a precursor of the Hebrew alphabet.
Carbon-14 analysis of burnt olive pits found in the same layer of the site dated them to between 1,000 and 975 B.C., the same time as the Biblical golden age of David’s rule in Jerusalem.
Scholars have identified other, smaller Hebrew fragments from the 10th century B.C., but the script, which Garfinkel suggests might be part of a letter,
predates the next significant Hebrew inscription by between 100 and 200 years. History’s best-known Hebrew texts, the Dead Sea scrolls, were penned on parchment beginning 850 years later.
The shard is now kept in a university safe while philologists translate it, a task expected to take months. But several words have already been tentatively identified, including ones meaning judge, slave and king.
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…