HIRBET QEIYAFA, Israel – An Israeli archaeologist digging at a hilltop south of Jerusalem believes a ceramic shard found in the ruins of an ancient town bears the oldest Hebrew inscription ever discovered, a find that could provide an important glimpse into the culture and language of the Holy Land at the time of the Bible.
The five lines of faded characters written 3,000 years ago, and the ruins of the fortified settlement where they were found, are indications that a powerful Israelite kingdom existed at the time of the Old Testament's King David, says Yossi Garfinkel, the Hebrew University archaeologist in charge of the new dig at Hirbet Qeiyafa.
Other scholars are hesitant to embrace Garfinkel's interpretation of the finds, made public on Thursday.
The discoveries are already being wielded in a vigorous and ongoing argument over whether the Bible's account of events and geography is meant to be taken literally.
Hirbet Qeiyafa sits near the modern Israeli city of Beit Shemesh in the Judean foothills, an area that was once the frontier between the hill-dwelling Israelites and their enemies, the coastal Philistines.
The site overlooks the Elah Valley, said to be the scene of the slingshot showdown between David and the Philistine giant Goliath, and lies near the ruins of Goliath's hometown in the Philistine metropolis of Gath.
A teenage volunteer found the curved pottery shard, 6 inches by 6 inches (15 centimeters by 15 centimeters), in July near the stairs and stone washtub of an excavated home.
It was later discovered to bear five lines of characters known as proto-Canaanite, a precursor of the Hebrew alphabet.
Carbon-14 analysis of burnt olive pits found in the same layer of the site dated them to between 1,000 and 975 B.C., the same time as the Biblical golden age of David's rule in Jerusalem.
Scholars have identified other, smaller Hebrew fragments from the 10th century B.C., but the script, which Garfinkel suggests might be part of a letter, predates the next significant Hebrew inscription by between 100 and 200 years.
History's best-known Hebrew texts, the Dead Sea scrolls, were penned on parchment beginning 850 years later.
The shard is now kept in a university safe while philologists translate it, a task expected to take months.
But several words have already been tentatively identified, including ones meaning "judge," "slave" and "king."
The Israelites were not the only ones using proto-Canaanite characters, and other scholars suggest it is difficult — perhaps impossible — to conclude the text is Hebrew and not a related tongue spoken in the area at the time.
Garfinkel bases his identification on a three-letter verb from the inscription meaning "to do," a word he said existed only in Hebrew.
"That leads us to believe that this is Hebrew, and that this is the oldest Hebrew inscription that has been found," he said.
Other prominent Biblical archaeologists warned against jumping to conclusions.
Hebrew University archaeologist Amihai Mazar said the inscription was "very important," as it is the longest proto-Canaanite text ever found. But he suggested that calling the text Hebrew might be going too far.
"It's proto-Canaanite," he said. "The differentiation between the scripts, and between the languages themselves in that period, remains unclear."
Some scholars and archeologists argue that the Bible's account of David's time inflates his importance and that of his kingdom, and is essentially myth, perhaps rooted in a shred of fact.
But if Garfinkel's claim is borne out, it would bolster the case for the Bible's accuracy by indicating the Israelites could record events as they happened, transmitting the history that was later written down in the Old Testament several hundred years later.
It also would mean that the settlement — a fortified town with a 30-foot-wide (10-meter-wide) monumental gate, a central fortress and a wall running 770 yards (700 meters) in circumference — was probably inhabited by Israelites.
The finds have not yet established who the residents were, says Aren Maier, a Bar Ilan University archaeologist who is digging at nearby Gath.
It will become more clear if, for example, evidence of the local diet is found, he said: Excavations have shown that Philistines ate dogs and pigs, while Israelites did not.
The nature of the ceramic shards found at the site suggest residents might have been neither Israelites nor Philistines but members of a third, forgotten people, he said.
If the inscription is Hebrew, it would indicate a connection to the Israelites and make the text "one of the most important texts, without a doubt, in the corpus of Hebrew inscriptions," Maier said.
But it has great importance whatever the language turns out to be, he added.
Saar Ganor, an Israel Antiquities Authority ranger, noticed the unusual scale of the walls while patrolling the area in 2003.
Three years later he interested Garfinkel, and after a preliminary dig they began work in earnest this summer. They have excavated only 4 percent of the six-acre settlement so far.
Archaeology has turned up only scant finds from David's time in the early 10th century B.C., leading some scholars to suggest his kingdom may have been little more than a small chiefdom or that he might not have existed at all.
Garfinkel believes building fortifications like those at Hirbet Qeiyafa could not have been a local initiative: The walls would have required moving 200,000 tons of stone, a task too big for the 500 or so people who lived there. Instead, it would have required an organized kingdom like the one the Bible says David ruled.
Modern Zionism has traditionally seen archaeology as a way of strengthening the Jewish claim to Israel and regarded David's kingdom as the glorious ancestor of the new Jewish state. So finding evidence of his rule has importance beyond its interest to scholars.
The dig is partially funded by Foundation Stone, a Jewish educational organization, which hopes to bring volunteers to work there as a way of teaching them a national and historical lesson.
"When I stand here, I understand that I'm on the front lines of the battle between the Israelites and the Philistines," said Rabbi Barnea Levi Selavan, the group's director. "I open my Bible and read about David and Goliath, and I understand that I'm in the Biblical context."
While the site could be useful to scholars, archaeologist Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University urged adhering to the strict boundaries of science.
Finkelstein, who has not visited the dig but attended a presentation of the findings, warned against what he said was a "revival in the belief that what's written in the Bible is accurate like a newspaper."
That style of archaeology was favored by 19th century European diggers who trolled the Holy Land for physical traces of Biblical stories, their motivation and methods more romantic than scientific.
"This can be seen as part of this phenomenon," Finkelstein said.