29 July 2010

Carved in clay

It seems there is lots of exciting tablet news lately! Jennifer Green at the Ottawa Citizen has been embedded with the Tell Tayinat excavation team in the Turkish Hatay covering their latest announcements about a treaty that was uncovered on the site last year. The document was composed in Akkadian (the "international" language of the Middle East at the time) and written in cuneiform on a large clay tablet that was then baked. Though this particular article is a bit dated (early April), I wanted to share it because it sums up really well the implications of this amazing find:
"Canadian archeologists in Turkey have unearthed an ancient treaty written in cuneiform that could have served as a model for the biblical description of God’s covenant with the Israelites.
The tablet, dating from about 670 BC, is a treaty between the powerful Assyrian king and his weaker vassal states, written in a highly formulaic language very similar in form and style to the story of Abraham’s covenant with God in the Hebrew Bible, says University of Toronto archeologist Timothy Harrison.
Although biblical scholarship differs, it is widely accepted that the Hebrew Bible was being assembled around the same time as this treaty, the seventh century BC."
The treaty being excavated last year at Tayinat (photo from Tayinat Archaeological Project)

Archaeologists have long recognized the large amount of "sharing" so to speak when it comes to literary traditions of the ancient Near East. The story of The Flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh for example, in which Utnapishtim builds a huge wooden boat to save himself, his family, and animals, predates the biblical flood story of Noah by a thousand years. There are other examples from ancient Canaanite (people who lived in what is today Israel, Palestine, western Syria and Lebanon) myths as well with the exploits of Baal and El, god names that are also repeated in the Hebrew bible (i.e., "Old Testament").

As Tim Harrison, the director of the Tayinat Archaeological Project, rightly notes in the article this treaty did not serve as a template for the Hebrew bible. It merely reflects the very formal and diplomatic language at the time--something "official" that the Hebrews would have wanted to emulate. You can read all of Jennifer's articles about Tayinat and life on the dig over at the Ottawa Citizen online with her most recent article ("Deciding where to dig: archaeologists stake their future on it") published today.

In other tablet news, Arutz Sheva is reporting a teenie weenie sliver of a tablet has been excavated at the ancient site of Hazor located near the northern border of modern Israel. Despite its size, archaeologist have been able to read a few lines of text that contain words like "master," "slave" and "tooth." Though we are awaiting a full report of the text, it is likely a fragment of an ancient law code dating to the 18th century BCE.

What's cool about this is no law codes have ever been found in Israel until now, though texts dealing with legal issues have been uncovered in the past. This new discovery could shed some light on the relationship between biblical law and the law code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian king who compiled a few codes of law that were already floating around into his famous black stela that currently resides in the Louvre. Of course, Hammurabi (I call him "Ham" for short) was practical as well as a showman. Apart from his stela, his laws were also written down on tablets and sent throughout the kingdom and this latest find from Hazor is probably one of those.

I've included this picture of Prof. Wayne Horowitz of the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology both to show the tiny tablet fragment and his amazing shirt. Oh if only I could get away with excavating in a Hawaiian shirt!

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