History major helped discover what could be evidence of the earliest ancient Hebrew alphabet

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Dan Rypma, a history major at Colorado State University and formerly of Whitehall, found himself making history this summer after discovering at an ancient site in Israel what may be the earliest form of the Hebrew alphabet.

“The Tel Zayit Inscription,” now sparking discussion and controversy among biblical and language scholars around the world, is two lines of 24 inscribed letters. It’s an alphabet, resembling both Phoenician and Hebrew, on a 38-pound limestone boulder which dates to around the 10th century B.C.E. - the time some biblical historians believe Kings David and Solomon reigned over a united kingdom of Judah.

Tel Zayit, located southwest of Jerusalem in the lowlands of what was believed to be ancient Judah, has been undergoing excavation by a team of archaeologists sponsored by Pittsburgh Theological Seminary since 1999.

Rypma learned about the excavations from one of his professors at Colorado State who was a former colleague of the director of the dig, Dr. Ron E. Tappy, associate professor of Bible and Archaeology at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Rypma applied for the 2005 dig, and was soon on his way to Israel.

It was on the second-to-the-last day of the five-week dig when Rypma uncovered the stone in the wall of a 3,000-year-old two-story home. The limestone boulder had incised scratches on it that Rypma said he knew were man-made, but could it be writing? Rypma wasn’t sure. It was his first archaeological dig, and he said he felt “sheepish” about bringing it to anyone’s attention. But that night he told his supervisor who went out the following day - the final day of the dig - to take a look at it.

The supervisor called Tappy to the location of the stone. Rypma saw his eyes instantly light up.

“By God, I think it’s an inscription,” Rypma recalled Tappy saying. “Next thing I knew everyone was shaking my hand. I was a bit taken aback. I realized it was important, but I didn’t realize how important it was to them.”

“I realized as soon as I laid eyes on the stone that the inscription was very old and very important, not only to the history of the alphabet and of writing, but to the history of the region in the biblical period,” said Dr. Tappy in an emailed response last week.

Tappy said only one other inscription from the time period has been found in the last 100 years. Pottery and other findings from the Tel Zayit site securely date the inscription found there to the 10th century B.C.E., according to Tappy.

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