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Jewish Journal

Local Team Solves Ancient Mystery

by Gaby Wenig

October 14, 2004 | 8:00 pm

In 1979 two tiny pieces of cracked and deteriorated silver found in a tomb outside of the Old City of Jerusalem proved to be one of the most important archeological discoveries of the century.

The silver strips had Hebrew writing on them -- albeit a very different-looking Hebrew to the one we know today -- and the words spelled out the priestly blessing: "May the Lord bless you and guard you. May the Lord make his countenance shine on you and be gracious to you. May the Lord turn his countenance to you and grant you peace."

The strips, which were initially dated from the seventh or sixth century B.C.E., contained the earliest known citation of a text that is also found in the Bible (in this case, Numbers 6: 24-26).

But for years, researchers doubted whether the "Ketef Hinnom amulets" -- named for the place where they were discovered -- were actually from that period, which would make them 400 years older than the Dead Sea Scrolls. They believed that the silver strips could have been written not in an archaic script, but an archaistic script -- in other words, written in a way that made them look older than they actually were. The rest of the writing on the strips had corroded away with the silver, so scholars couldn't read it clearly. And they weren't even sure if the strips were amulets, which were usually worn as a sort of spiritual protection, or something else. Those scholars dated the silver as coming from the third or fourth century B.C.E. If that were the case, the strips would have been a less-important discovery in establishing the ancientness of the Bible's language.

Recently, a team of Southern California researchers from the USC School of Religion-affiliated West Semitic Research Project (WSRP), an organization that photographs ancient artifacts so that scholars all over the world can study them, rephotographed the amulets using innovative lighting techniques that revealed more of the writing on them. Then, using computer imagery to analyze the writing on the strips and compare it with other writings of the period, proved that they are archaic, not archaistic, and the oldest-known citation of a biblical text. The scholars dated the strips as coming from the period just before the destruction of the first temple in 586 B.C.E., reestablishing the strips as, in words of one scholar, the "heavyweight champions of the [archeological] world."

"We initially tried to photograph the objects conventionally, but it was clear that it was not going to work," said Dr. Bruce Zuckerman, a professor of Semitic languages at USC, who is the project leader at WSRP.

Zuckerman explained that markings on the amulets were too small too be decipherable to the naked eye, which is why many photographs taken from different angles were needed to properly study them.

"We took picture in contrasting lights, then we would match them and superimpose them one on top of the other," he said, referring to the way that some of the letters were visible from one angle, but not from another.

Zuckerman and his colleagues, Dr. Marilyn Lundberg of the WSRP and Dr. Andrew Vaughn, a biblical historian at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, also used a computer imaging technique they called "patching," which took a piece of the writing that had been misaligned by the cracked silver and "patched" it into the place it was meant to be. They also studied similar writings from the period, which enabled them to recognize letters that were no longer whole, due to the age of the silver.

The team was able to decipher the preamble to the priestly blessing on the amulets, which read: "May he [or she] be blessed by God, the rescuer and the rebuker of evil."

"It tells you without question that you are dealing with an amulet," Zuckerman said. "And we were able to do a close comparison with equivalent inscriptions from that period and from the later periods. Basically, we believe that we decisively proved that what had originally been proposed was correct, these are the earliest citation of a biblical text. It reestablishes them as the heavyweight champions of the world."

The scholars also worked with Dr. Gabriel Barkay, the archeologist at Bar Ilan University in Israel who discovered the amulets. Together they published their research in a CD form, in The Bulletin of American Schools of Oriental Research. Academic articles are traditionally published in paper journals, but the CD, which was published with the assistance of the Annenberg School of Journalism at USC, enabled the scholars to publish the photographs they took, as well as the digital imaging techniques, so that other scholars could assess them.

"It is really important to me that our common Jewish heritage is more fully explored -- and when I say our common Jewish heritage, I don't mean just for Jews," Zuckerman said. "The Jewish heritage lies at the base of the great religions, and when one makes a small discovery like this, we're doing something to further clarify the origins of the great religions."

For more information on the project, visit www.usc.edu/dept/LAS/wsrp.

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