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Oldest Known Document Uncovered in Jerusalem

Israeli archaeologists working in Jerusalem say they have uncovered a fragment of the oldest known written document ever found in the city. The tiny fragment is 600 years older than any written document found in Jerusalem.

The clay fragment is not much larger than an olive. But the age of this artifact makes it hugely significant. It is nearly 3400 years old. The fragment was recently discovered in excavations beneath a 10th century BCE (Before the Common Era) tower that dates to the time of Israel's King Solomon.

Dr. Eilat Mazar of Hebrew University in Jerusalem led the excavation that discovered the fragment. She says that it highlights the importance of Jerusalem long before Solomon's time.

"It shows a very highly skilled scribe, by a scribe that most probably sat in the court of the king of Jerusalem at the time and because it was written in Jerusalem, based on the fact that it was written on the soil from Jerusalem, that we know after examination, we know this court was here in Jerusalem meaning that Jerusalem at the time was a very significant, important capital, a royal city," said Mazar.

The text is written in cuneiform in the ancient Akkadian language. Cuneiform documents were formed by pressing a reed stylus into soft clay tablets that were later hardened in the sun. The writing style is believed to have started in ancient Mesopotamia near the mouth of the Euphrates and dates as far back as the fourth millennium BCE.

Cuneiform tablets were often used for diplomatic or official letters in the ancient Near East. Professor Wayne Horowitz of Hebrew University says that the fragment is part of a correspondence between the royal court in Jerusalem and one in Egypt. He says what the document says is not as important as what it is.

"It is the very first time that we have a Cuneiform text from Jerusalem and it's also even more special, the oldest written evident, the oldest document ever to come out of the ground in Jerusalem," said Horowitz. "Hundreds of years older than other material and it also demonstrates how important Jerusalem was in the late bronze age."

Mazar says the artifact, though small, is probably part of a larger archive, meaning that more such fragments could be discovered.

"We do believe that in Jerusalem, as it seems, an archive existed and lots of other fragments should be found just as this one," said Mazar. "This is the first one but many others should appear in more excavations in the ancient part of Jerusalem, the ancient mound of Jerusalem should reveal more fragments and an archive."

The tablet contains only five lines on one side, and four on the other, but it is 600 years older than the most ancient known written record previously excavated in Jerusalem. That document was a tablet that celebrated the completion of a water tunnel into what is known as the City of David.