A potsherd slightly larger than a business card found in the ruins of a Late Bronze Age temple at the biblical site of Lachish in southern Israel has yielded a few tantalizing letters from a 12th century BCE alphabet — what one researcher called a “once in a generation” find.

The inscription, three lines containing nine early Semitic letters, was discovered during excavations at the site in 2014 and is believed to date from around 1130 BCE. It’s the first Canaanite inscription found in a Late Bronze Age context in over 30 years, the authors of the paper said. The letters were etched into a clay jar before firing, and are exceptionally clear.

The first line reads pkl, the second spr — the Semitic root for scribe — but the third has two letters of uncertain meaning (one is fragmentary). The text includes the earliest dateable examples of the letters kaf — the precursor to the Latin letter K — samekh — S — and resh — R. Samekh had never before been found in early Canaanite inscriptions.

Details of the intriguing nine-letter inscription were published in the November/December issue of the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research.

Archaeologists at work excavating the biblical city of Lachish, where an early 12th century BCE Canaanite alphabet inscription was found in 2014. (courtesy of Yossi Garfinkel, Hebrew University)

Archaeologists at work excavating the biblical city of Lachish, where an early 12th century BCE Canaanite alphabet inscription was found in 2014. (courtesy of Yossi Garfinkel, Hebrew University)

The Canaanites began to develop the alphabet around 1800 BCE, over a thousand years after cuneiform writing first appeared in Mesopotamia. Professor Yosef Garfinkel of Hebrew University, one of the co-authors of the paper, called that innovation “the greatest intellectual contribution of the land of Israel to global culture.”

“If there hadn’t been an alphabet there wouldn’t have been a Bible,” he said.

But there are centuries of silence following the earliest known alphabetic inscription. “We have no clue how the alphabet was preserved over the years, how it wasn’t forgotten or lost,” he said.

The archaeologists from Tel Aviv University, Hebrew University and Tennessee’s Southern Adventist University who studied the potsherd inscription determined that it was too fragmentary to make heads or tails of what it might say. The jar fragment’s discovery in a temple complex suggests the text may be dedicatory. The scholars pointed out, however, that the letters themselves provided crucial information about the development of the proto-Canaanite alphabet — the precursor to the Hebrew, Greek and Latin alphabets.

“Late Bronze Age inscriptions themselves are very rare,” the authors, headed by Benjamin Sass of Tel Aviv University, said. “Between four and six alphabetic inscriptions exist from the outgoing Late Bronze Age, the 13th century and part of the 12th.”

“Every snippet of information is another piece in the puzzle,” said Garfinkel over the phone. “Once every 30 years, once in a generation, we find an inscription.”

Early alphabetic texts from this period are so rare, they note, that several letters of the alphabet remain undocumented. What they do show is the gradual evolution of Semitic letters from pictographs to more linear symbols. “The impact of a single new text may be considerable” for understanding the evolution of the early alphabet, the authors said.

An aerial view of Tel Lachish (CC BY-SA אסף.צ, Wikimedia Commons)

An aerial view of Tel Lachish (CC BY-SA אסף.צ, Wikimedia Commons)

Around time the inscription was written, Lachish was a prosperous economic center in Egyptian-dominated Canaan, and one of the most important cities in the region during the Late Bronze Age. It was mentioned in ancient correspondences between Egypt and its Canaanite vassals found at Amarna. Excavations there have uncovered opulent tombs, ruins of large temples, and imported goods from Cyprus and Greece. But most crucially, digs in the 1970s yielded a trove of Hebrew royal seal impressions bearing the words “to the king.”

“The Canaanite city of Lachish was one of the most important centers in the world for the use of the alphabet,” and preserved the culture of using an egalitarian writing system, Garfinkel said. Earlier writing systems, like Sumerian cuneiform or Egyptian hieroglyphs, demanded years of study and were comprehensible only to an elite cadre of scribes. Alphabets were far more accessible to all.

Yosef Garfinkel with a shrine model made of stone, found at Hirbet Qeiyafa (Courtesy of Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

Yosef Garfinkel with a shrine model made of stone, found at Khirbet Qeiyafa (Courtesy of Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

In the Iron Age, with the rise of the Kingdom of Judah, Lachish became the second city of the Israelite monarchy, a major fortified town on the border of Philistia. The Biblical narrative and Assyrian accounts document its capture and destruction by Sennacherib’s army in 701 BCE.

Earlier this year Garfinkel announced the discovery of an Iron Age Canaanite inscription on a large clay storage jar found at Khirbet Qeiyafa, 10 miles north of Lachish, dating from around 1020 to 980 BCE. The Qeiyafa inscription bears the name of a biblical character and reads Ishba’al son of Beda.

“Canaanite culture essentially influences to this day every language which uses an alphabet,” Garfinkel said, “not just Hebrew and Arabic and other Semitic languages.”

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