Oldest inscription found in Jerusalem, but no one can read it

3,000-year-old text from King David’s time, in an unknown language on the top of a jug, is earliest alphabetical writing ever found in holy city

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Jar fragment bearing an inscription in a Canaanite language that was unearthed near Jerusalem’s Temple Mount by Hebrew University archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar.( photo credit: Dr. Eilat Mazar/ Noga Cohen-Aloro)
Jar fragment bearing an inscription in a Canaanite language that was unearthed near Jerusalem’s Temple Mount by Hebrew University archaeologist Eilat Mazar. (photo credit: Eilat Mazar/Noga Cohen-Aloro)

An ancient inscription dating back to the time of King David, recently discovered in Jerusalem, has researchers scratching their heads.

The 3,000-year-old text comes from the top of what remains of a large earthenware jug and is the earliest alphabetical written text ever uncovered in the city, according to a statement from Hebrew University, whose researchers found the artifact.

Dated to the 10th century BCE, the artifact predates by 250 years the earliest known Hebrew inscription from Jerusalem, from the period of King Hezekiah at the end of the 8th century BCE.

The new inscription was found around the top of a jug, but only the first letter and last few now remain. Although the characters are legible, it is in an unknown Canaanite language.

The pottery was found in December 2012 but details of the discovery were only published on Wednesday after initial examinations of the find were completed.

Archaeologist Eilat Mazar, who is leading the dig that found the inscribed fragment, speculated that the text names the owner of the jug, its destination, or perhaps its contents.

Mazar reckoned that the text comes from the Jebusite people who lived in the area at the time, or some other Canaanite tribe that called Jerusalem home at the time of King David, around 1000 BCE. The date makes the discovery the oldest known text to be found in Jerusalem after the Israelite arrival in the city.

Reading from left to right, the text contains a combination of letters approximately 2.5 cm tall, which translate to m, q, p, h, n, (possibly) l, and n. Since this combination of letters has no meaning in known west-Semitic languages, researchers are boggled as to what the letters say.

According to Mazar, the inscription, in the Canaanite language, is the only one of its kind discovered in Jerusalem and an important addition to the city’s history.

Researchers from the Hebrew University found the artifact at a dig along the southern wall of the Temple Mount enclosure.

The southern wall meets the Western Wall, a remnant of the ancient wall that surrounded the Temple courtyard, at a corner that has been extensively explored by researchers and developed as an archaeological park.

The jug, along with pieces from six other jugs typical to the period, was found beneath the floor of the remains of a large structure where they were apparently placed in ancient times to shore up the floor.

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