Sunday, November 20, 2005

Tel Zayit Inscription: My Account of the Discovery

The Tel Zayit inscription has of course been big news here at the ASOR and SBL meetings in Philadelphia. Tonight at the Society of Biblical Literature there was a special session devoted to it. Ron Tappy, the Zeitah director, did a great job presenting the archaeological context I thought. It was also great to see so many people from the Zeitah team, including Connie, Madeline, Dale, Dave, Andrea, Dan, Eric, Erin, Kiirsten, and Ben. In any case, several people have asked that I blog my account of what transpired on the day of the discovery, so here it is.

The square that I supervised was O-19, right on the shoulder of the tel. Dale Swindel, an excellent excavator and quite a character, was the assistant supervisor. On July 13th and 14th the volunteers, Dale, and I brushed and swept and cleaned the square again and again to make sure it was clean enough for the pictures. Final photographs of the squares are extremely important, and it always works out that with such meticulous sweeping and cleaning you notice amazing things. In years past, I've discovered pits, taboons, and all sorts of features that weren't visible without that extra cleaning. This year sweeping so carefully REALLY paid off. By the end of the dig day on July 14th we received Ron's approval that the square was ready for the picture. That's no small thing, as Ron Tappy isn't the type to settle for less than perfection. The next morning, on July 15th, we got to the site even earlier than usual. It was still very dark outside. The point is that you want the final photos to be taken before the sun gets too high because it will bleach out many of the features and create shadows that look distracting in the photographs. We were extra early because we wanted to do some final touches with sweeping, and get rid of the traces of our footprints. Also, there is some local guy with a contraption known as a "cherry picker" that Ron always uses for final photos. It is like a tractor with a giant arm that can put a metal basket pretty high up in the air. That way Ron, when he is taking pictures, can get the entire square in the frame. Ron started with these pictures in the Trench down below O-19, because when the sun broke the horizon at dawn the shadows in the Trench would have been pretty bad--worse than up on top in my square. While we were waiting up on top for Ron to finish photographs of the Trench, a volunteer named Dan Rypma from Colorado State approached me. Dan was a real pleasure to work with. He had a great attitude, was very interested in learning methodologies, held a strong work ethic, everything was great about him except that he smoked. But anyway, Dan said he had seen some scratches on a rock while he had been sweeping the stones in a wall the day before. He said he wasn't sure what these scratches were, but he had thought quite a bit about them the night before and he wanted to make sure that we didn't leave the sight without at least pointing them out to me. We carefully went into the square into this Iron Age room that had cobble stones and well preserved walls. Just over a meter up, sitting in the wall, was the stone Dan wanted to show me. I could see, sure enough, the scratches Dan mentioned. But looking carefully at the stone for quite some time, I could recognize what appeared to be the letters mem and a nun in an ancient West Semitic script. Let me be clear in stating that these letters and the others that we saw shortly thereafter were HARD to see, as other scholars who saw the stone in more favorable conditions have attested. The light had to be coming from the side just right. It reminded me of Indiana Jones and the staff of Ra. So here I was, the first person in nearly 3000 years to read letters carved on the stone. I was extremely overcome with excitement. I'm not the type of person who jumps up and down though. I just kept telling Dan and Dale how amazing all of this was. But we had worked so incredibly hard getting the square ready for final photos, I didn't want to tell anyone else until after the photos of my square were completed. So when Ron was high up in the air taking pictures, I told Gabi Barkai that I thought we had an inscription in a stone in the wall. He was of course very excited, as the wall provided a great archaeological context, and the thought of a 10th century BCE inscription in Judah is rare. Impossible some would have argued. When Ron was lowered back to the ground, I told him about Dan's amazing find, and we led he and Gabi over the rock. Then we celebrated, and then the entire Zeitah team celebrated, and then we took a bajillion pictures of the rock in situ. We excavated the top of the wall down to the stone, and when we were set to remove it, my hand felt that the bottom was carved out. That was even more exciting, as the inscription was on some sort of a stone bowl, or mortar, or something. The point is that this inscription clearly raises so many intriguing questions. But it also solves others. But more of the analysis later... Dale and I had the privilege of carrying the soon-to-be-famous stone down the tel. I remember asking Dale "Are you ready for one of the most important walks of your life?" It was a few days later, after the stone was photographed and drawn by an expert, that Ron was able to discover that it was in fact an abecedary (the entire alphabet from aleph to taw). This discovery is such a great link between the archaeological and historical/written record. Congratulations to Ron Tappy and his family, and thanks to Dale, Dan, and all of the other wonderful people who have worked with the Zeitah excavation team.


  1. Anonymous1:40 AM

    Dear Michael,

    How exciting to hear the story from start to finish! Please give my regards to all there, and can't wait til next year!


  2. 0-19: 1
    Trench: 0 (though we still love our duck).

    Good to see you,

  3. Anonymous11:14 AM

    You had told me you wanted an inscription, and and two weeks later you had it. Maybe all those morning prayers to G-d had an impact on the dig.

  4. Anonymous8:39 PM

    I came across the blog while I was Googling my now-famous next-door neighbor, Dan Rypma. You guys ought to do something to make him less humble about the whole thing; when I tell him that he is the most important Archeologist of 2005, he just blushes. Kudos on this amazing find, to all of you.

  5. who knew the site i worked on 7 years ago would yeild such great things...cheers

  6. Anonymous11:30 PM

    The arrogance of the archaeological community continutes to bewilder me. Where are the high resolution graphics of the find so it can be studied by those of us on the outside.

  7. Anonymous6:23 PM

    Nice to read this account. I had Mr. Rypma as a student teacher last year in my US history class, and he was awesome. His stories about this stuff were pretty funny.

  8. Anonymous2:07 AM

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