Earliest Known Hebrew Text Unearthed
at 3,000 Year Old Judean Fortress

Ancient Elah Fortress at Khirbet Qeiyafa.

Hebrew University Photo

(IDF) The earliest known Hebrew text has been discovered in an ancient city overlooking the area where David slew Goliath. The finding predates the Dead Sea Scrolls by 1,000 years.

According to Professor Yosef Garfinkel, the Yigal Yadin Chair of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, this is the only site in Israel where one can experience a story of the Young David in its historical context. "The chronology and geography of Elah Fortress at Khirbet Qeiyafa create a unique meeting point between the history, historiography and origins of the early Davidic Kingdom," said Garfinkel. "This is the oldest Judaean city uncovered to date, and its very construction has unprecedented implications on our understanding of this era."

The ostracon (pottery shard inscribed with writing in ink) comprises five rows of text divided by black lines and measures 15 x 15 cm, written in a Proto-Canaanite script. It was discovered within the outer fortifications of the Elah Fortress site. Dating to the 10th century B.C.E., the Elah Fortress is the earliest known Judaean fortified city of the Biblical period. The sophisticated engineering indicates a strong central government in Judaea, supporting descriptions and narratives found in the books of Samuel and Chronicles.

Why is this inscription so special?

Aerial view of the excavation site at Khirbet Qeiyafa.

Hebrew University Photo

Carbon-14 dating of organic material found with the ostracon, administered by Oxford University, along with pottery analysis, dates this inscription to ca. 3,000 years ago – predating the Dead Sea Scrolls by approximately a millennium, and placing it even earlier than the famed Gezer Calendar. It is hoped the text inscribed on the ‘Elah Ostracon’ will serve as an anchor in our understanding of the development of all alphabetic scripts.

While the inscription has yet to be deciphered, initial interpretation indicates the text contains the roots of the words "king," "judge," and "slave." Epigrapher Dr. Hagai Misgav, an expert on ancient Hebrew script and inscriptions at Hebrew University, maintains that it was clearly written as a deliberate message by a trained scribe.

What is the Elah Fortress?

Comprising 23 dunams (23,000 square meters or 2.3 hectares), the Elah Fortress was situated on the border between Philistia and the Kingdom of Judah. It is thought to have been a major strategic checkpoint guarding the main road from Philistia and the Coastal Plain to Judaea.

Nearly 600 square meters of the Elah Fortress have so far been unearthed. A four-chambered gate, 10.5 meters across, is the dominant feature of the massive fortifications. Surrounded by a 700 meter-long massive city wall, the fortress was built with megalithic stones – some weighing up to eight tons. Archaeologists estimate that 200,000 tons of rock were hewn, moved and used in the construction of these fortifications in the city casemate wall and gate. To date, only four percent of the site has been excavated, promising many more exciting discoveries in the future.

The sophisticated engineering of the site and its artifacts all indicate that there was most likely a strong central government in Judah – earlier than any discovered until now – rather than a number of small villages with limited administration. The early Hebrew ostracon, Judean pottery similar to that found at other Israelite settlements, and the absence of pig bones, all point to this fortress being a Judaean city.

Over 100 jar handles bear distinct impressions which may indicate a link to royal vessels. Such a large quantity of this feature found in one concentrated location is unprecedented.

The site of Khirbet Qeiyafa is situated among what archaeologists identify as four biblical cities in Judah’s inheritance (Joshua 35:15) – Azeka, Socho, Yarmut and Adulam. The biblical narrative locates the battle of David and Goliath in the Elah Valley near Socho and Azeka.

Excavations and scientific analysis are being led by Professor Yosef Garfinkel, the Yigal Yadin Chair of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, on behalf of Foundation Stone, a developmental educational organization. Additional support is provided by J.B. Silver, the Berman Center and the Brennan Foundation.