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Team Digs Into History of Alphabet

November 12, 2005|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

American researchers have discovered a 3,000-year-old stone on which is written the oldest known version of the Hebrew alphabet, the precursor of all the alphabets used in the Middle East as well as the modern English alphabet.

The 22 letters of the ancient alphabet were inscribed on the 38-pound stone in their proper order, making it the oldest known abecedary -- the letters written out in their traditional order.

The stone was discovered July 15 in an excavation at Tel Zayit, Israel, about 35 miles southwest of Jerusalem on the outskirts of ancient Judah, by a team led by archeologist Ron E. Tappy of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

Undergraduate student Dan Rypma of Colorado State University stumbled across the stone, embedded in a buried wall of a building, on the last day of the dig.

Debris above and below the stone firmly dated it to the 10th century BC.

The Israelites adopted their alphabet from the Phoenicians, who lived to the west along the Mediterranean shore. Some earlier Phoenician texts have been found, but very little from this period has been found inland, Tappy said.

The text "is an extremely important landmark in the history of alphabetic writing," he said.

Tappy argues that the 8-acre Tel Zayit site was a crucial border city in the new state being formed by the biblical Kings David and Solomon in the capital of Jerusalem. He believes that continuing excavations there will lend new insight into the early history of Israel.

Although most scholars agree with him about the importance of the abecedary, many disagree with his interpretation of the biblical period, arguing that there is little archeological evidence to support the biblical stories of the two kings.

Tappy is scheduled to present his work Nov. 20 at a Philadelphia meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature.

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