ASOR 2007 (p. 14)

“The Tel Zayit Abecedary in the Context of Ancient Literacy and Education” session began promptly at 4:15. It was the most highly anticipated lecture of the day for me because of the work I had done to produce a detailed drawing of the stone’s inscriptions during the 2 preceding weeks. In hindsight, the day had been so full of wonderful moments & interesting encounters, that it was nigh impossible for the session to exceed the high expectations I had conceived for it.

Dr. Ron Tappy, professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary & director of Zeitah/Zayit excavations, presided over the session, & delivered a 15-minute paper, “The Archaeological Context of the Tel Zayit Abecedary and Why That Context is Important“.

This was the first time I had seen him since my only other (very brief) meeting with him at PTS over 4 years ago, 2 years before this monumental discovery had been made. Naturally, it was far more interesting to see/hear him now that he had become a celebrity due to the international publicity over the abecedary. I thought of how exciting it must have been to hear archeological celebrities of the past lecture on their important discoveries like Clermont-Ganneau translating the Siloam Inscription, or Marston lecturing on the Lachish Letters, or Biran lecturing on the Dan/David Stela. I had heard reports of the standing-room-only crowd at his 2005 ASOR lecture announcing the discovery, & somewhat surprisingly, the room this year was only about half full (or half empty depending on your disposition).

His abstract represents his lecture well, despite the fact I don’t have the plethora of color photos (beginning with this one of the site as it was found in 1996 covered with grass) & maps to show you here as he did during the lecture:

The borderland site of Tel Zayit lies in the Nahal Guvrin in the lowlands district of Judah. Near the conclusion of the 2005 excavation season at the site, The Zeitah Excavations recovered a large stone bearing an incised, two-line inscription. The special importance of the stone derives not only from its archaic alphabetic text (a twenty-two-letter abecedary), but also from its well-defined archaeological context in a structure dating securely to the tenth century B.C.E. Much of the epigraphic evidence available today has come from compromised archaeological contexts (e.g., the unstratified Gezer Calendar) or has no known provenance data at all (e.g., almost all the inscribed arrowheads from Lebanon). That the Tel Zayit stone, by contrast, comes from a well-preserved destruction level helps to anchor in a specific time period the conclusions drawn from an independent palaeographic analysis of the inscription itself. Together, the archaeological and palaeographical data enhance our general understanding of the material culture and history of southern Canaan in the tenth century B.C.E. The Tel Zayit Abecedary represents the linear alphabetic script of central and southern Canaan at the beginning of the first millennium B.C.E., a transitional script that developed from the Phoenician tradition of the early Iron Age and anticipated the distinctive features of the mature Hebrew national script.” [Sorry, I couldn’t resist doing the yummy kosher link again!]

You could tell he’d given this same essential lecture numerous times over the past couple of years, because he delivered it fluidly; it was filled with facts, & I was not able to keep pace in my notebook. One important quote I did get, though not completely in context, was “If it had been found in Beirut, it would be considered Phoenician.” He was quoting someone else who had analyzed the inscription, & his point was emphasizing the importance of having found it in a known location, & in a stratigraphically sealed context. It’s a very important quote that I’ll refer to again when I get around to P. Kyle McCarter’s rebuttal/response at the end of this session.

Another tidbit I found interesting was his map showing the 3 major valleys in this region. The abstract mentioned Guvrin, but there is also the Elah & Lachish, & Prof. Tappy noted this region “fits in nice with Joshua 15“. For details, see this section of his overview on Zeitah.net, where he elaborates:

This convergence of geological and archaeological history appears to correlate well with the outline given in Joshua 15:33-44 of districts and cities belonging to the biblical tribe of Judah. Here, the settlements of the Shephelah, or ‘lowland’, area are organized into three geographical groups that follow roughly the Elah (vv. 33-36), Lachish (vv. 37-41), and Guvrin (vv. 42-44) systems.

(For students abroad wishing for excellent photos of this region, you need look no further than Prof. Todd Bolen’s Pictorial Library of Bible Lands CD vol. 4.)

He briefly mentioned strata at the site dated as follows:

  • late 9th
  • early 9th
  • mid-to-late 10th (the one containing the abecedary)
  • (at last a 200-year occupation gap)
  • 13th
  • 14th
  • 16th-15th
  • 17th-16th

In closing, he mentioned that Aaron Demsky would be presenting a lecture the following morning on the abecedary, but Aren Maeir, who was seated directly across the aisle to my right, interjected that Prof. Demsky cancelled his appearance; & Prof. Tappy stated that he was aware of that, & that someone else would be reading his paper on his behalf.

Christopher Rollston was next, & if Prof. Tappy was “fluid”, Prof. Rollston could best be described as “oil on a Teflon-coated surface”! During the first half of his presentation, he read his paper with a slide of the Lachish-Step Abecedary (“ABGDE”), & during the second half, he improvised while showing numerous slides of inscriptions. In both formats, my ballpoint pen was smokin’ trying to keep up! Here’s the title & terse abstract:

Literacy, the Phoenician and Hebrew Script Series, and the Tel Zayit Abecedary

With the Tel Zayit Abecedary as its Ausgangspunkt, this presentation will focus on definitions of literacy, the Sitz im Leben of literacy in ancient Israel, and the process of the development of Old Hebrew “script isographs” (vis a vis the Phoenician Mutterschrift).

Here are my notes verbatim (still smoldering a little) so you can get some of the flavor of his extremely cautionary presentation:

Zayit is a very important … hear me loudly & clearly … Zayit cannot be used as an epigraphic basis … we can’t make affirmations of the number of people … we can’t say they were literate in the region … [maybe a] student studied in Jerusalem & returned home to Zayit … we can’t say anything about phonological practices … [it was found] in a secondary or tertiary context … we can’t talk about the aegis that produced it … we can’t talk about the non-aegis … [its] sitz im leben is not known … [nonetheless, it’s a] very important piece of the literary puzzle … just because we have a date[d artifact], we do not have a literate society … ‘writing system’ & ‘literacy’ are not related…

Dropping his script, he turned to his slideshow & finally addressed the Lachish Step, pointing out that Alefs were not normally smaller than Bets & Dalets; in other words, if this were the only abecedary we had, it would be wrong to believe that this was their normal size relationship. An excellent point.

He showed the late-11th to early-10th century Azarba’al Spatula & highlighted its “very vertical” Mem constructed with 5 strokes, its Kaf trident lacking a downstroke, & its “boxy” Bet & Het.

He showed the Ahiram Sarcophagus, noting that the final stroke of the Mem “is lengthening“, the Het is “still boxy“, & the Kaf is a full trident.

He showed the Yehimilik & Eliba’al Byblian inscriptions, Shipitba’al (10th/9th centuries) with additional lengthening of the letters, the Nora Stone (late 9th century) described as “colonial Phoenician” with the Mem “a little more horizontal“, & a Kaf showing “elongation“.

At this point he emphasized that the Zayit abecedary “reflects” the Phoenician script, & he wanted to make it clear that he differs with P. Kyle McCarter on this.

He also showed the Kefar Vradim inscription (on a bowl), an archaic script of the 10th century, & the one from el Kerak, but as he was running out of time, he skipped right over his photos of the Gezer Calendar & the famous Tell Fakhariyeh Statue.

His final commentary was on the City of David Stone (which I was not familiar with; IAA # 1986-394, Reg G 4809), & this slide bore the caption, “Rollston’s Drawing“. It remained on the screen after he finished speaking, so I was able to draw all 14 letters; I was not able to find any reference to it using Google, so if anyone knows of a drawing of it online or a web page describing/discussing it, please let me know; otherwise, I might be persuaded to publish my drawing of his drawing.

Steve Feldman had passed out a photocopy of “Fig. 45 The stele of Kilamu king of Yadi” (p. 55 from an uncredited book) at the beginning of Prof. Rollston’s segment, but I don’t recall him ever addressing it specifically. I’ve studied this one before, & am frustrated that I can’t remember off the top of my head how the 4 icons at the top of inscription are translated–the helmet, the yoke, the winged light (a.k.a. “sun disk”), & the crescent moon.

Next up, David Carr & Seth Sanders. Nice, knowledgeable guys, but be sure to tank up on caffeine beforehand…

G.M. Grena

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