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The Kiss of History

July 18, 2010 | by Toby Klein Greenwald

My daughter discovered the oldest known writing in Jerusalem.

One blessing I would offer any parent is: May you never cease to be (positively) surprised and amazed by your children.

Our daughter, Ephrat, 27, is a quiet adventurer. She has hiked the Sinai Desert, explored Italy, spent a month in the outback of Turkey, and another month shooting the rapids and climbing mountains in Peru. She’s existed on fruits and vegetables when there was no kosher food at hand, and learned to make Shabbat in primitive circumstances. She does these things as easily as others take a walk down the street.

But her greatest adventure caught her unaware right here at home.

Ephrat was the one who found the tiny piece of clay that contains the oldest known writing ever discovered in Jerusalem. From the late Bronze Age, it is considered a major discovery in Israel’s archeological community.

And how she found it is part of the story.

Dr. Eilat Mazar – Role Model

Five years ago, Ephrat – whose B.A. is from Ariel College in Behavioral Sciences – took a break from her job as a counselor in a home for troubled girls and decided to get her hands dirty – literally.

“I was always interested in archeology,” she says, “and I just wanted the chance to dig.”

Dr. Eilat Mazar, of the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology and the Shalem Center, was seeking the palace of David (today known as the “Large Stone Structure”) in the City of David, to the south-east of the Old City of Jerusalem. Ephrat was accepted as a sifter in the project. After digging under Mazar’s direction for two months, Ephrat was promoted to be the head of the sifting crew and the project continued four more months.

“I work with the Bible in one hand and the tools of excavation in the other."

We were excited to hear that Ephrat was working with her. Mazar, the granddaughter of the late Professor of Archeology Binyamin Mazar, is referred to as a “biblical archeologist”, as she uses the Bible as her blueprint. This is a source of controversy among those archeologists who do not accept the Bible as a scientific source. In 2008 Mazar told the Jerusalem Post, which had chosen her as one of their “people of the year”, “I work with the Bible in one hand and the tools of excavation in the other. The Bible is the most important historical source."

She is the author of The Complete Guide to the Temple Mount Excavations (2002), and among her recent finds is a 3,000-year-old wall from the time of Solomon. In 2008 she discovered a 2,600-year-old clay seal impression (“bulla”) bearing the name Gedaliah ben Pashur. The name appears in the Book of Jeremiah (38:1). She has been outspoken about the Moslem Waqf’s destruction of archeological evidence and artifacts from the First and Second Temples.

See related story: Unearthing the Bible

When the “Stone Structure” dig ended, Ephrat worked at other digs, including at Emek Tzurim, a location beneath the Mount of Olives which was set up with greenhouse type structures to which the soil from the Temple Mount was brought and where it was sifted in order to find artifacts from the Temple.

In November, 2009, Ephrat began working with Mazar again, this time with the soil that was taken from the dig at the Ophel area, located between the southern wall of the Old City of Jerusalem and the City of David. Again she was made head of the sifting crew. Her responsibilities included keeping track of what was found and where. She also helped train the new sifters, and supervised their sifting and recording. Ephrat was trained originally by archeologist Yoav Farhi.

Seeking Treasure

“Sacks of dirt would arrive from the Ophel,” says Ephrat, “and they had to be clearly marked so that if something of significance is found, the archeologists would know from exactly which location it came.” Some of the sifters are archeology students, and some are from other fields, but have a desire, like her, to experience the past with their own hands.

How does the sifting operation, so critical for the preservation of the past, work?

“First the large soil is sifted without water, so the soil and sand will go through,” says Ephrat. “Then it goes to the stage of ‘wet sifting’, in which the soil is placed in large sieves and the sifters spray water through the soil so that what remains can be properly examined.

“The wet sifting helps to find the very small pieces that may have great historical significance. If one doesn’t know how to examine the pieces, things can get lost.”

On March 11, the morning that Ephrat found the clay fragment, her regular work was slow, so she decided “to grab a bucket and sift.” In the first bucketful she noticed something. “It was different than anything I had ever seen before. I saw that it had some kind of writing carved into it. We called Eilat, who was at Hebrew University, and she got there in ten minutes.” When Mazar arrived, says Ephrat, “She hugged and kissed me and said that it was a very significant discovery.”

On July 12, four months later, the find was made public, after it had been examined and assessed by all the relevant experts.

Two Centimeters of History and Politics

The tiny piece of clay, from the14th century B.C.E., is 2x2.8 centimeters in size and one centimeter thick. It has letters carved in it in cuneiform script, the earliest known form of writing, in ancient Akkadian (the lingua franca of that era). It was found in the fill excavated from beneath a 10th century B.C.E. tower dating from the period of King Solomon.

The script was deciphered by Prof. Wayne Horowitz , a scholar of Assyriology at the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology, along with his former graduate student Dr. Takayoshi Oshima, now of the University of Leipzig, Germany. According to Horowitz, the script is of a very high level, and was probably written by a highly skilled scribe who prepared tablets for the royal household of the time.

The clay tablet is 600 years older than the most ancient known written record previously found in Jerusalem.

The clay tablet is 600 years older than the most ancient known written record previously found in Jerusalem. That was a tablet found in the Shiloah water tunnel in the City of David area, dating back to the 8th century B.C.E. reign of King Hezekiah. Today that tablet is in a museum in Istanbul.

This latest fragment is believed to be contemporary with the some 380 tablets discovered in the 19th century at Amarna in Egypt in the archives of Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten). Those tablets revealed complex relations that existed between the Pharaoh and the kings who were subservient to him in Canaan and Syria.

Letter to Jerusalem

Mazar says that this tablet is most likely part of a message that would have been sent from the king of Jerusalem, possibly Abdi-Heba, back to Egypt. Prof. Yuval Goren of Tel Aviv University, who examined the fragment, says that it is from the soil of the Jerusalem area, testifying to the likelihood that it was part of a tablet from a royal archive in Jerusalem containing copies of tablets sent by the king of Jerusalem to Pharaoh Akhenaten in Egypt.

The digs have fans overseas. Daniel Mintz and Meredith Berkman of New York provided funds for this project and for the completion of the excavations and opening of the site to the public by the Israel Antiquities Authority, in cooperation with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Company for the Development of East Jerusalem. The sifting work was led by Dr.Gabriel Barkay and Zachi Zweig.

Mazar says this new discovery acts as a counterpoint to some who have used the lack of substantial archeological findings from that period until now to argue that Jerusalem was not a major center during that period. It also lends weight to the importance that accrued to the city in later times, leading up to its conquest by King David in the 10th century B.C.E., she said.

Living History

“You have a wonderful, amazing daughter,” Mazar told me when I called to congratulate her. “She was responsible for keeping track of everything and was in charge of the entire sifting operation. We knew we could depend on her at the highest level.”

Our daughter is not a student of archeology in the formal sense, but ever since I can remember my husband has hiked with the children all over Israel. His M.A. is in Jewish history. I write biblical plays. And Ephrat, today a Jerusalemite, grew up in our home in Efrat (different spelling), halfway between Bethlehem and Hebron, among the hills that Abraham walked.

Our lives are steeped in Israel’s past. We are blessed that Ephrat is an apple who has fallen close to the tree. We are doubly blessed that she has role models like Dr. Eilat Mazar, who does not hesitate to follow her convictions, in spite of those in the archeological community who would trivialize the blueprint of the Bible.

The importance of Jerusalem, even before King David, is validated by this little piece of clay. My daughter may have grabbed the bucket on the spur of the moment, but the grateful embrace of her employer was no less than the kiss of history.

With thanks to Hebrew University.
Photo credits: Lior Dar (sifting) and Sasson Tiram (clay piece)


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