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Qeiyafa Ostracon Chronicle

8 July 2008 (ca. 10.00): A 17-year-old volunteer, Oded Yair, uncovered a large potsherd on the floor of a room. It was placed in a black plastic bucket with all the other finds unearthed that morning in the same room.

Qeiyafa Ostracon
Photo by G. Laron

8 July 2008 (17.00): During the afternoon washing of the finds, after the sherd had been soaked in water, it was noticed that it bears writing. This observation was made by Sang-Yeup Chang, the area supervisor of the square in which the sherd was found earlier that morning. Now it became clear that the item is an ostracon (a potsherd bearing an inscription). In this case the writing was done with ink rather than by incision.

8 July 2008 (17.10): A telephone call was made to Orna Cohen, who works with the Qeiyafa expedition on conservation and restoration. Our question was very simple: what should we do with a wet ostracon bearing an ink inscription? The answer was to leave it indoors on tissue paper, and to let it dry slowly.

8 July 2008 (17.20): The ostracon was examined and photographed by the expedition staff. It now became clear that we have five rows of writing, that black lines separate the rows, and that the letters are very archaic in form, in the style known as Proto-Canaanite script.

The Ostracon before cleaning
The first photo of the ostracon before any cleaning.

8 July 2008 (21.00): We celebrated the discovery by inviting all volunteers and staff to drink beer in a nearby pub (please don't tell our funding agencies about this expense).

9 July 2008 (19.00): The first lecture on the ostracon was delivered to the volunteers and staff of the expedition. This included a photograph of the item and a paleographic chart of early Semitic inscriptions.

11 July 2008: The ostracon was taken to Jerusalem and given to Orna Cohen for cleaning over the weekend.

16 July 2008: The epigraphist Dr. Haggai Misgav was informed about the inscription and was invited to decipher and publish it.

Dr. Haggai Misgav holds the Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon
Dr. Haggai Misgav holds the Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon.

19 July 2008: The cleaned ostracon was returned to the expedition. As Yossi Garfinkel took photos of the ostracon, his wife, Tal Ilan, was able to read the first identifiable word: "שפט". This can be read in English as "judge", but also as a personal name.

The ostracon held by conservator Orna Cohen
The ostracon held by conservator Orna Cohen.

The ostracon after cleaning
A simple photo of the ostracon at the conservation laboratory, immediately after cleaning.

27-29 July 2008: The ostracon was given to Penina Shur of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) for photography. Clara Amit, a photographer of the IAA, took various types of images: color, black and white and infra-red. It became clear that quite a number of letters are heavily faded, and the reading is quite problematic.

27 August 2008: The ostracon was given for photography to Dr. Greg Bearman, who was visiting Israel for sophisticated photography of the Dead Sea scrolls. As he was short of time, he took photographs only of the upper right corner of the inscription. These photos enable a better reading of some letters.

11 September 2008
A presentation of the Qeiyafa pottery to some 40 professional archaeologists from all over the country: Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, Haifa University, Bar Ilan University, Israel Antiquities Authority and the Albright Institute. In this meeting Haggai Misgav gave a preliminary presentation (photographs and reading) of the inscription.

11 September 2008
Prof. Aren Maeir posted a note in Yahoo ANE-2 group about the meeting that had taken place earlier that day. He also mentioned the ostracon, making the first public announcement of this discovery:
"This absolutely fantastic, fortified Iron Age site (late Iron I/early Iron IIA) has a very nice assemblage of pottery, and what may be the most important Iron Age Semitic inscription found in Israel in the last decade! (to be published by Haggai Misgav of the Hebrew University). I can't give details about it, but OH BOY - this is going to be VERY INTERESTING!!!!"
As such an announcement should be made by the excavators, the Qeiyafa expedition has reservations as to whether Aren will be invited for further professional meetings…

12-15 September: Following Aren's note, speculation on the inscription began to appear in various biblical blogs on the web. At this stage the site name Qeiyafa appeared on ca. 80 websites.

18 September 2008: The ostracon was sampled for petrographic analysis by David Ben-Shlomo. A tiny piece of pottery was sliced from the ostracon, from the side opposite to that bearing the inscription.

30 October 2008: The Qeiyafa expedition gave its first public presentation of the 2008 excavation season in a meeting held on the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This forum was jointly organized by the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University and the Israel Antiquities Authority. The proceedings of this meeting were published in that day in a book, including the first scientific paper on the excavations: Y. Garfinkel and S. Ganor. 2008. Khirbet Qeiyafa: A Fortified Border City between Judah and Philistia. In D. Amit and G. Stiebel (eds.) New Studies in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and its Region 2, pp. 122-133. Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority and the Hebrew University (Hebrew).
The presentation included a photo of the ostracon and discussion by Haggai Misgav. His main conclusion at this stage is that the language of the ostracon is Hebrew. He can read in the inscription the words: "אל תעש" (do not do), "שפט" (judge), ") "עבד" slave) and "מלך" (king).

30 October 2008: Ethan Bronner reported in the New York Times on the excavations and the inscription.

1-2 November 2008: The inscription and excavations received media attention all over the world. The number of websites mentioning Qeiyafa increased from 80 to over 20,000. On this occasion photographs of the inscription, as well as close-ups of a few letters, were released, including "אל תעש" and "שפט".

4 November 2008: The ostracon was sampled for NAA (Neutron Activation Analysis) by J. Gunneweg. A small amount of pottery was taken from the side of the ostracon, in a location far from the inscription.

Gunneweg testing Ostracon

18-28 November 2008 The ostracon flew to Tel-Aviv - Toronto - Boston - Los Angeles - Tel Aviv. It passed through countless immigration, customs and security checks, but no questions were asked.

18 November 2008: Presentation of the excavation results and the ostracon inscription at Harvard University.

19-24 November 2008: The ostracon stayed at the Boston Westin Waterfront Hotel, where the ASOR meeting took place. As it had not paid ASOR membership or participant fees, it could not attend the meetings and had to stay in the hotel safe.

19 November 2008: Dr. Greg Bearman took the ostracon for imaging at Headwall Photonics, Fitchburg, MA, using a line scanner imaging spectrometer that acquires the entire reflectance spectrum of a line at once.

Ostracon Examined

21 November 2008: Dr. Greg Bearman took the ostracon for imaging at CRI in Woburn, MA, using a different imaging spectrometer to obtain both reflectance and fluorescence spectral images.

Ostracon Examined

21 November 2008 (evening): Prof. Larry Stager of Harvard University brought 88-year-old Prof. Frank Moore Cross to the Boston Westin Waterfront Hotel to see the ostracon. (During his academic carrier Prof. Cross has made an extremely important contribution to the understanding of the Proto-Canaanite script.) Later Prof. Stager informed us: "He was talking about it for days. In fact he couldn't sleep for two nights."

Ostracon Examined

24 November 2008: Dr. Greg Bearman took the ostracon for imaging at Mega-Vision in Santa Barbara, CA. Here they conducted 12-band spectral imaging with much higher spatial resolution (39 MP) than the previous two methods.

Ostracon Examined

25-26 November 2008: Dr. Greg Bearman took the ostracon for imaging at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, CA. Here various imaging techniques were used.

Ostracon Examined

(A note to Haggai: now, after all this sophisticated imaging, you should be able to decipher the ostracon in no time...).

Qeiyafa Ostracon Chronicle continues - October 2009