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The Kingdom of David

John on October 31, 2008 at 9:55 am

A big archaelogical discovery hit the papers this week:

Archaeologists from the Hebrew University said they found five lines of text written in black ink on a shard of pottery dug up at a five-acre (two-hectare) site called Elah Fortress, or Khirbet Qeiyafa.

Experts have not yet been able to decipher the text fully, but carbon dating of artifacts found at the site indicates the Hebrew inscription was written about 3,000 years ago, predating the Dead Sea Scrolls by 1,000 years, the archaeologists said.

Several words, including “judge,” “slave” and “king,” could be identified and the experts said they hoped the text would shed light on how alphabetic scripts developed.

In a finding that could have symbolic value for Israel, the archaeologists said other items discovered at the fortress dig indicated there was most likely a strong king and central government in Jerusalem during the period scholars believe that David ruled the holy city and ancient Israel.

Here’s why this is so significant. There is a small but vocal contingent of scholars who argue that King David (and Solomon) were, at best, minor kings. To be fair, the archaeological evidence for the so-called “united monarchy” is scant at best. Once you get into the 9th century, the kings of Israel are better attested in extra-Biblical sources.

One of the major lines of argument has been that a large kingdom, like David’s kingdom in scripture, would require a literate population. It’s hard to issue orders to your subordinates 100 miles away if no one can read or write. So the discovery of a stone used for teaching the alphabet just a few years ago was a big deal. And now this find, which is both the oldest Hebrew text and the longest from this time period, suggests that literacy was somewhat common in the 10th century.

This find is also one of the best dated. Two olive pits at the site contained traces of wood which were used to carbon-14 date the site. As the NY Times explains:

Another reason this site holds such promise is that it was in use for only a short period, perhaps 20 years, and then destroyed — Mr. Garfinkel speculates in a battle with the Philistines — and abandoned for centuries, sealing the finds in Pompeii-like uniformity. Most sites are made up of layers of periods and, inevitably, there is blending, making it hard to date remains accurately.

For example, several years ago the archaeologist Eilat Mazar uncovered in East Jerusalem a major public building from around the 10th century B.C. that she attributes to David’s time and was perhaps even, she believes, his palace. While she found pottery, it was in a fill, not sealed, making it hard to know how to relate the pottery to the structure.

Furthermore, the site itself is significant. This is a fortification designed to accomodate up to 500 people situated on the road to Jerusalem. This sort of fortress is exactly what one would expect to find if Jerusalem were a major seat of power at the time.

Of course the big news will be what the inscription actually says. I’ll see if my Old Testament professor has any inside scoops on this and, if so, I’ll publish it.

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Category: Archaeology |

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