The Zayit Stone is a thirty-eight pound limestone boulder excavated at Tel Zayit (Zeitah) in the Guvrin Valley, about 35 miles southwest of Jerusalem), in 2005. The flat side of the boulder is inscribed with a complete Paleo-Hebrew abecedary. The first line contains eighteen letters (aleph through tsadi), while the second contains the remaining four letters (qoph through tav) followed by two enigmatic zigzag symbols.
One side of the stone, which measures 37.5 cm × 27 cm × 15.7 cm high, carries the abecedary extending over two lines:
- Line 1:
- Line 2:
Modern Hebrew alphabet:
- Line 1:
- א ב ג ד ו ה ח ז ט י ל כ מ נ ס ע פ צ
- Line 2:
- | | ק ר ש ת
There is some debate over whether the forms of these letters are anticipatory of later developments in Hebrew and should thus be characterized as "Palaeo-Hebrew" or whether they lack such features and should be characterized as "Phoenician" or more generally "South Canaanite."
The side opposite this inscription has a bowl-shaped depression measuring 18.5 cm × 14.5 cm × 6.7 cm deep. Other similar ground stone objects have been recovered at Tel Zayit. Their function is uncertain, but "they may have served as mortars, door sockets, or basins of some kind."
Circumstances of the discovery
Excavations under the direction of Ron E. Tappy of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary have been conducted at Tel Zayit during the 1999–2001, 2005, 2007, and 2009–2011 seasons. A volunteer excavator, Daniel Rypma, discovered the stone on July 15, 2005.
The inscription was discovered in situ in what appears to be a tertiary usage as part of wall 2307/2389 in square O19. Like the Gezer Calendar, the abecedary is an important witness to the letter forms in use in the Levant in the early Iron Age. Several inferences may be drawn from its content and context:
- The authors of the editio princeps support the conclusion that given "the well-established archaeo-palaeographic chronology of the Tel Zayit inscription... and the clear cultural affiliation of its archaeological context with the Judaean highlands, we may reasonably associate it with the nascent kingdom of Judah." It should be noted, however, that this interpretation has been challenged on both palaeographic and archaeological grounds.
- The Tel Zayit abecedary adds to the corpus of inland Canaanite alphabetic inscriptions from the early Iron Age and thus provides additional evidence for literacy in the region during this period. While claiming a certain "level" or "percentage" of literacy on the basis of this and similar inscriptions is notoriously difficult, one might argue, as one recent contributor to the discussion, that because "Tel Zayit is... small enough and distant enough from Jerusalem... the presence of this inscription there might be taken as testimony of more widespread writing across more far-flung and minor administrative centers of Judah."
- In addition to preserving writing as such, the inscription preserves an ordered sequence of letters, though this differs at points from those of other abecedaries from the Late Bronze and Iron Age Levant. Particularly, waw is placed before he, het is placed before zayin, and lamed is placed before kaph. In this last instance, a large X appears to mark a mistake realized by the scribe himself. This may indicate that the author was poorly educated or that the alphabetic order had yet to fully stabilize.
- The text may have played a significant role in making "an important symbolic statement for the cultural core that lay in the highlands to the east." This is true "regardless of which cultural set [i.e. coastal Phoenician or highland Hebrew] one sees as the sponsor of the inscription."
In addition to the above broad historical concerns, the inscription is significant primarily due to the light it sheds on the development of letter forms in the southern Canaanite interior of the early Iron Age. Because the stratigraphy of the site and the date of the inscription itself are still debated, it is nevertheless difficult given the present state of research to attach any definite historical or chronologically absolute conclusions to the inscription's existence or content.
- For an introduction to difficulties of labeling this script, see P. Kyle McCarter, "Paleographic Notes on the Tel Zayit Abecedary," and Christopher A. Rollston, "The Phoenician Script of the Tel Zayit Abecedary and Putative Evidence for Israelite Literacy," both in Literate Culture and Tenth Century Canaan: The Tel Zayit Abecedary in Context (ed. Ron E. Tappy and P. Kyle McCarter, Jr.; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2008), 45-96.
- Ron E. Tappy et al. "An Abecedary of the Mid-Tenth Century B.C.E. from the Judaean Shephelah," BASOR 344 (2006): 5-6, 26.
- ibid., 25
- Ron E. Tappy, "The 1998 Preliminary Survey of Khirbet Zeitah el Kharab (Tel Zayit) in the Shephelah of Judah," BASOR 319 (2000): 7-36; idem, "The Depositional History of Iron Age Tel Zayit: A Response to Finkelstein, Sass, and Lily Singer-Avitz," Eretz Israel 30 (2011): 127*-143*.
- Tappy et al., "Abecedary of the Mid-Tenth Century," 42.
- In the editio princeps, the authors write that "the utilization of the Tel Zayit stone as a writing surface seems likely to have been secondary to its original purpose, so that the subsequent appropriation of the inscribed boulder as a building block might be described as tertiary" (Tappy et al., "Abecedary of the Mid-Tenth Century," 25).
- Tappy et al., "Abecedary of the Mid-Tenth Century," 42.
- Rollston, "Phoenician Script," 61-63
- Israel Finkelstein, Benjamin Sass, and Lily Singer-Avitz, "Writing in Iron IIA Philistia in the Light of the Tel Zayit/Zeta Abecedary," ZDPV 124 (2008): 1-14
- David M. Carr, "The Tel Zayit Abecedary in (Social) Context," in Literate Culture and Tenth Century Canaan, 126.
- For a useful chart, see Seth L. Sanders, "Writing and Early Iron Age Israel: Before National Scripts, Beyond Nations and States," in Literate Culture and Tenth Century Canaan, 102.
- Ron E. Tappy, "Tel Zayit and the Tel Zayit Abecedary in Their Regional Context," in Literate Culture and Tenth Century Canaan, 37.
- See especially Finkelstein, Sass, and Singer-Avitz, "Writing in Iron IIA Philistia," to which Ron E. Tappy, "The Despositional History of Iron Age Tel Zayit," EI 30 (2011): 127*-143* is a response.
Academic Books and Articles:
- Editio Princeps: Tappy, Ron E., P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., Marilyn J. Lundberg, and Bruce Zuckerman. "An Abecedary of the Mid-Tenth Century B.C.E. from the Judaean Shephelah" BASOR 344 (2006): 5-46.
- Carr, David M. "The Tel Zayit Abecedary in (Social) Context." Pages 113-129 in Tappy and McCarter 2008.
- Finkelstein, Israel, Benjamin Sass, and Lily Signer-Avitz. "Writing in Iron IIA Philistia in the Light of the Tel Zayit/Zeta Abecedary." ZDPV 124 (2008): 1-14.
- McCarter, P. Kyle. "Paleographic Notes on the Tel Zayit Abecedary." Pages 45-60 in Tappy and McCarter 2008.
- Rollston, Christopher A. "The Phoenician Script of the Tel Zayit Abecedary and Putative Evidence for Israelite Literacy." Pages 61-96 in Tappy and McCarter 2008.
- Sanders, Seth L. "Writing and Early Iron Age Israel: Before National Scripts, Beyond Nations and States." Pages 97-112 in Tappy and McCarter 2008.
- Tappy, Ron E. "Tel Zayit and the Tel Zayit Abecedary in Their Regional Context." Pages 1-44 in Tappy and McCarter 2008.
- Tappy, Ron E. and P. Kyle McCarter, Jr. Literate Culture and Tenth-Century Canaan: The Tel Zayit Abecedary in Context. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2008.
Popular and Other Articles:
- Wilford, John Noble, "A Is for Ancient, Describing an Alphabet Found Near Jerusalem." The New York Times: November 9, 2005.
- Grena, G. M., "An Analysis of the Zayit Stone Inscriptions & BASOR 344's Presentation Thereof." online publication, November 11, 2007