Westmont Magazine Ancient Alphabet Unearthed
Former Westmont Professor Makes the Archaeological Find of the Decade
A 38-pound chunk of limestone with 3,000-year-old scratchings has rocked the world of archaeology. Last summer, former Westmont Professor Ron Tappy and a team of volunteers digging south of Jerusalem unearthed the stone, which appears to show an early, emerging Hebrew alphabet.
“It will represent a link from Phoenician to Hebrew writing in the ninth century,” Tappy says. “It’s Proto-Hebrew, the oldest Hebrew inscription in existence.”
Tappy was an Old Testament professor at Westmont for five years before becoming the G. Albert Shoemaker professor of Bible and archaeology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 1997. His wife, Connie Gundry Tappy ’80, worked on the dig as well. Her father, Robert H. Gundry, is scholar-in-residence at Westmont.
The monumental discovery occurred at Tel Zayit, a mound of archeological debris 25 miles from Gaza. On the last day of the dig, as the sun was beginning to rise, Tappy hung over the site in a crane, taking pictures. The morning sun highlighted the colors of the stone and architecture. As the light hit a wall, one of the volunteers noticed the scratches and called to Tappy.
“As soon as they showed me, I knew it was an ancient inscription,” he says.
John Rodkey, Westmont associate director of information technology, has worked with Tappy as director of archeological computing at the site since 1999. He remembers Tappy’s call vividly.
“He told me to get everyone together,” Rodkey says. “A van would be there in five minutes. We all needed to get there quickly. It was obviously significant. When we arrived, we were sworn to secrecy about the nature of the find.”
“There were some scratchings in a line,” Rodkey says. “It looked like someone had taken an X-acto or fine knife to it.”
The ancient letters, however, didn’t announce the arrival of an invading king, as Tappy expected. “The inscription doesn’t have a text, there’s no verb or syntax or grammar and that’s where the challenge is,” he says. “It’s challenging and exciting to see that, in fact, the whole alphabet was developed. This is the era of King Solomon, by traditional reckoning, and a fully developed alphabet shows the emerging kingdom.”
The discovery may substantiate the biblical account of Solomon and David. Some scholars have argued that they were mythical figures or had little political power.
“It’s hotly debated whether David and Solomon had any influence outside of Jerusalem, much less where we were,” Rodkey says. “It’s a strong indicator that someone literate was there. Scribes would typically be found only in important, royal cities. Villages wouldn’t usually have one.”
Tappy’s research team is in the final stages of completing its initial scholarly article. They’ll head back to Israel next summer to continue digging at the site. Tappy says the building has been only partly exposed, and he hopes to get a better understanding of its function.
“I was absolutely committed from the beginning for 10 years,” Rodkey says. “So this find should make a significant impact on the interest level. Hopefully, we’ll get a lot more volunteers, and it’ll make it more exciting as we go back next year.”