>An Akkadian Document from Jerusalem

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Photo: The Akkadian Fragment from Jerusalem

Archaeologists have discovered a small fragment of the oldest known written document found in Jerusalem. The document in question is a clay document written in Akkadian, the lingua franca of diplomacy in the Late Bronze Age. The tiny clay fragment is dated to the 14th century B.C.

According to archaeologists, the fragment was part of a royal archive from one of the kings who ruled in Jerusalem during the Amarna Age. The following are excerpts from an article that appeared in ScienceDaily:

A tiny clay fragment — dating from the 14th century B.C.E. — that was found in excavations outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls contains the oldest written document ever found in Jerusalem, say researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The find, believed to be part of a tablet from a royal archives, further testifies to the importance of Jerusalem as a major city in the Late Bronze Age, long before its conquest by King David, they say.

The clay fragment was uncovered recently during sifting of fill excavated from beneath a 10th century B.C.E. tower dating from the period of King Solomon in the Ophel area, located between the southern wall of the Old City of Jerusalem and the City of David to its south.

The fragment found at the Ophel 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), who lived in the 14th century B.C.E. The archives include tablets sent to Akhenaten by the kings who were subservient to him in Canaan and Syria and include details about the complex relationships between them, covering many facets of governance and society. Among these tablets are six that are addressed from Abdi-Heba, the Canaanite ruler of Jerusalem. The tablet fragment in Jerusalem is most likely part of a message that would have been sent from the king of Jerusalem, possibly Abdi-Heba, back to Egypt, said Mazar [Dr. Eilat Mazar of the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology has been leading the excavations in the Ophel].

Cuneiform writing was commonly used in diplomatic and official documents in the Ancient Near East. If this Akkadian document is a fragment of a letter between the royal court in Jerusalem and the royal court in Egypt, then this discovery reveals the importance of Jerusalem as a city-state a few centuries before David conquered the city.

In the article cited above, Eilat Mazar emphasizes the significance of this discovery:

Mazar says this new discovery, providing solid evidence of the importance of Jerusalem during the Late Bronze Age (the second half of the second century B.C.E.), 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.

Again, if this fragment was part of a royal archive, it is possible that, with additional excavations at the site, many other documents will be found. Such a discovery would then provide important information on the history of ancient Jerusalem.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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