Khirbet Kheyafa aerial view
Khirbet Kheyafa aerial viewIsrael Antiquities Authority

Archaeologists have discovered what they say is the oldest Hebrew text ever found, at a site they believe was King David's front line fortress in the war against the people of Pleshet, also known as the Philistines. The site overlooks the Elah Valley, where the young David slew Goliath, the Philistine giant, with a well-aimed shot from a sling.

Prof. David Garfinkel with the ostracon.
David Willner/Foundation Stone

The text is written in ink on a pottery shard (ostracon). It is made up of five lines of text in Proto-Canaanite characters separated by lines. The discovery, by archaeologists Prof. Yossi Garfinkel and Sa'ar Ganor of Hebrew University, is being hailed as one of the most important finds in Israel since the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Carbon-14 dates to King David

The writing predates the Dead Sea Scrolls by about 1,000 years.

The writing on the shard seems to be a letter sent from one person to another and archaeologists have still not deciphered it completely. Preliminary analysis shows that it contains the words "king" (melech), "judge" (shofet), and "eved" (slave), and that the terms may be parts of names, as in "Achimelech" or "Evedel" (lit. "King's brother," "Servant of God").

Carbon-14 dating of olive pits as well as chemical analysis of the pottery found at the site shows conclusively that it dates from between 1,000 and 975 B.C.E – the time of King David's reign. David – who wrote the Psalms, unified the tribes of Israel and made Jerusalem the capital of the Israeli nation – is considered to be Israel's greatest King, whose reign ushered in the period in which the First Temple was built.

The writing therefore predates the Dead Sea Scrolls by about 1,000 years.

The Elah Fortress
David Willner/Foundation Stone

'David's ruins'
The site where the shard was found is known as Khirbet Kheyafa, but Rabbi Barnea Selava

"The local Bedouins refer to it as… are you sitting down?... Khirbet Daudi - David's ruins."
n of the Foundation Stone organization says that "the local Bedouins refer to it as… are you sitting down?... Khirbet Daoud." The word khirbeh in Arabic refers to a ruin and Daudi is Arabic for David.

Also known as the Elah Fortress because of its location at the Elah Valley near Beit Shemesh, archaeologists believe the fortress controlled a strategic point overlooking the main route connecting Pleshet and the Judean lowland with the mountainous region and the central cities of Jerusalem and Hevron.

The ancient point of settlement covers more than four acres and is surrounded by a 700 meter long wall. Archaeologists believe that 200,000 tons of rock were mined in order to build it. The wall contains a massive and ornate gate built from hewn rock.

Stoned in the head
According to Selavan, there was some debate among archeologists as to whether the fortress was the Jewish front line against the Philistines or the opposite – the Philistines' front line against the Jews. However, there is now widespread agreement that the site was Jewish: there are no pig bones and chemical analysis (petrography) of the ceramics found there shows that the structure was Jewish, not the Philistine's.

The Elah Valley is the site at which Jewish and Philistine armies faced each other in one of the most glorious battles ever: the fateful victory in which David killed Goliath with a stone to the forehead. The Bible describes the location (in 1 Samuel, 17:2-3) thus:

And Saul and the men of Israel were gathered together, and pitched by the valley of Elah, and set the battle in array against the Philistines.

And the Philistines stood on a mountain on the one side, and Israel stood on a mountain on the other side: and there was a valley between them.

The digs at the spot have been underwritten by the Berman Center Biblical Archeology Hebrew University, the Brennan Foundation and Foundation Stone, which is turning the site into an educational attraction and invites the public to participate in the digs.