It has been four years since Ron Tappy finished excavating an ancient border town not too far from Jerusalem, but the Pittsburgh-based archaeologist still returns to Israel twice a year as he works on analyzing and writing about the implications of his findings.
Tappy, the G. Albert Shoemaker professor of Bible and Archaeology at the Presbyterian Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in East Liberty, also serves as director of the Seminary’s Kelso Museum of Near Eastern Archaeology and as the project director and principal investigator of the Zeitah Excavations, an archaeological field project at Tel Zayit, Israel.
He recently returned from Israel with his team of five, the second of his trips in 2015; he spent his time immersed in the vestiges of Tel Zayit, an hour’s drive southwest of Jerusalem.
While most archaeologists gravitate to excavation sites at what were once large cities, as a doctoral student Tappy realized that there could be a lot to learn by studying the artifacts of ancient small town life.
“It occurred to me that the space between large cities hadn’t received much attention,” said Tappy. “I wanted to try to find a small village to excavate. I was looking for a small site, a village of everyday folks.”
Tappy was not looking for palaces, he said, but rather simple houses so that he could learn about the typical family living in biblical times.
He settled on Tel Zayit, in Israel’s Beth Gurvin Valley, a borderland community located between the Hebrew city of Lachish in the hills, and, “according to the Bible,” a Philistine city in the south, Tappy said.
Tappy was interested in seeing how a distinct culture evolved in a small city nestled between two other divergent cultures.
But when Tappy and his crew began their project in 1999, they soon realized that Tel Zayit had more to offer than they expected.
“The town was not so tiny,” Tappy said. “It actually was a good problem to have. What we had was a good, sizable town.”
Tel Zayit flourished “just before the period of the Hebrew Bible, around 1500 to 1200 BCE — the late Bronze Age,” Tappy explained. “There was a tremendous Egyptian influence there, and there were some huge buildings.”
The excavation phase of Tappy’s project continued from 1999 to 2011. Included in his findings was a large, well-built, multi-storied building, which the archaeologist believes was used for official public functions, and had been destroyed by an attack.
“In its destruction, I could see the building was on a huge stone foundation, and the walls were made of huge mud bricks that were plastered over,” he said. “There were traces of red and black paint. The building could have been a palace.”
Tappy found Egyptian-style pottery, evidence of fish from the Nile and ivory and scarabs carved in the Egyptian style, indicating that the inhabitants of Tel Zayit had some connection with ancient Egypt.
The site was abandoned, Tappy said, around 1200 BCE, and no one lived there for about 200 years.
“During the heyday of the biblical Philistines and the Hebrew judges, it appears that this site was not occupied,” he said.
Around 950 BCE, a small town emerged on the site, and the artifacts Tappy has found from that era indicate a very different culture, one that was “small and utilitarian in nature,” he said.
And yet one of Tappy’s most dramatic discoveries came from that culture: a 22-letter inscription carved into a 38-pound stone that is the earliest known example of the complete linear alphabet, called an abecedary.
“It is the full alphabet carved into a rock, then put into the wall,” Tappy said. “It was meant to be seen.”
Tappy sees the abecedary as evidence of the expansion of the kingdom of King Solomon.
While his theory is debated by some scholars who think the letters on the abecedary are Phoenician, Tappy is confident they are Hebrew, and may be indicative of the expansion of the borders of the kingdom centered in Jerusalem.
The abecedary may also be evidence of the early “democratization of writing,” Tappy said.
“With the emergence of a stable, fixed alphabet, you are putting literacy in the hands of more people, which is a symbol of power,” he continued. “I am open to the possibility that the inscription is doing that.”
On the other hand, the purpose of the inscription could have been much more mundane.
“It also could be a neophyte scribe practicing carving his aleph bet gimmel into a rock,” he said.
Now that the excavation phase of his project has concluded, Tappy and his team are tasked with examining 400,000 pottery fragments, cataloguing them and analyzing them. The work is done on their twice-yearly trips to Israel.
“We do everything in Israel,” he said. “The work is very tedious, but it is very gratifying. It’s not for everybody. You have to be meticulous, and you have to have a good eye for detail. But it is bringing order out of chaos.”
Tappy hopes to take a sabbatical from his duties at the seminary next year so that he can begin writing about his findings at Tel Zayit, a work that he says will fill two or three volumes; he will present it to the Israel Antiquities Authority, with which he has been collaborating.
The boulder with the abecedary inscription is currently in the care of the IAA, but is not yet on display.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.