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Itzbet Sartah in Rosh Ha'Ayin

Admittedly, there is not a lot to see now at this archeological site, but for those interested in biblical archeology this is a very significant place. What you will see is the outline in stones of a dwelling and some explanatory signs in Hebrew. This was an Israelite agricultural settlement that has been dated to the 12th to early 11th century BCE, which places it in the early Iron Age and the time of the judges. Many identify it with the village of Even Ha’ezer. The most significant finding has been a large ostracon, the Izbet Sartah Abecedary, on which was Proto-Canaanite writing, pointing to literacy in this Israelite community.

Itzbet Sartah in Rosh Ha'Ayin

Directions: Put “Shahaf Street” into Waze and click on “Shahaf, Rosh Ha’Ayin.” Drive to the end of this cul-de-sac. Park here. You will see a footpath ahead of you which goes to the left. Follow this footpath to the archeological site.

Public transport: Enter “Shahaf Street” into Moovit and click on “Shahaf Strett, Rosh Haayin.”    It is about a 500-meter/6 minute walk from the nearest bus stop.


4-room house from the Israelite period

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It is from Even Ha’ezer that the Israelites went to battle the Philistines who were camped in nearby Ophek. This is on the other side of the valley and can be seen from this site. The story of the two battles in the intervening area is told in 1 Samuel chapter 4 to 7. The Philistines attacked and destroyed the city of Shilo. The Israelites gathered at Even Ha’ezer to attack the Philistines and were defeated, leading to the death of 4,000 men. It was decided that the reason for their defeat was that God was not with them and they advised that the Ark of the Covenant be brought from Shilo. Eli the high priest agreed to this and his two sons accompanied the ark. This subsequent battle was associated with even an even greater defeat than previously with the loss of 30,000 foot soldiers. The Ark of the Covenant was also captured and Eli’s two sons were killed.


The Ark of the Covenant brought no joy to the Philistines. It was taken to their temple to Dagan in Ashdod.  Dagan was found tipped over in front of the ark. A plague also broke out in the city. The inhabitants of the city decided to get rid of the ark and it was brought to Gath. However, the people suffered a similar affliction. After a total of seven months, the ark was returned to the Israelites at Beit Shemesh accompanied by a special offering. The Jews brought it from Beit Shemesh to Kiryat Yearim, where it stayed for 20 years until brought to Jerusalem by King David.


This site contains 4-roomed houses that were typical of Israelite homes during that time. The outlines of one house and its rooms have been left for viewing. These houses typically had a rectilinear plan with three, four or more spaces or rooms. A large central space was separated by one or two rows of stone pillars with an entrance from an exterior courtyard into the central space. There was a broad room at the back. The central courtyard was used for daily activities such as food preparation and domestic chores. The side rooms functioned as storage areas and stables and the back room was used for living and sleeping quarters.


An ostracon is a potsherd written on by pen and ink or by scratching and this one was found within a grain silo. This is one of the earliest known Hebrew ostracons from this period. It is now in the Israel Museum, but there is a sign about it on this site. It has four lines of writing, followed by the 22 letters of Proto-Canaanite (ancient Hebrew) script. This last line was particularly helpful since it enabled interpretation of the rest of the text. It reads from left to write, indicating that at that time the direction of Hebrew writing was fluid.


The final translation goes like this:


Line 1: Unto the field we came,/ [unto] Aphek from Shilo

Line 2: The Kittim took [it] and came to Azor, [to]/ Dagon the lord of Ashdod, [to] Gath

Line 3: [and to] Yearim Kiriah.

Line 4: The companion of the foots soldiers, Hophni, came to/ tell the elders, a horse has come [and] upon [it was my] brother for us to bury.


This is very exciting, since it is referring to the biblical story about the capture of the Ark of the Covenant and the death of one of Eli’s sons (both would die). The Kittim are the Philistines from Crete and it is discussing the Ark of the Covenant. The slash / indicates a break in the middle of the sherd. In the past, and before an accurate translation was available, this ostracon was thought to have been written by a student who was practicing writing. But the subject matter is serious, and this might not necessarily be the case.


This ostracon also tells us that literacy was not uncommon in Israelite villages at this time. There are other indications of this in the Bible. Also in the Book of Judges, for example, we read about the military leader Gideon: “And Gideon the son of Joash returned from the battle when the sun was still high. And he caught a youth of the men of Succoth and inquired of him; and he wrote down for him the officials of Succoth, and its elders, seventy-seven men.” Judges 8:13-14).

Who invented the Proto-Canaanite script?


The earliest hieroglyphs found in Egypt date from around 3300-3200 BCE. The earliest cuneiform writing found in Mesopotamia is from around 3400-3200 BCE. Later cuneiform had 600 to 1,000 signs. It was a pictorial alphabet that included logograms (word signs), phonograms, sound signs representing one, two or three consonants, determinatives, and symbols that provided context to clarify meaning. At its height Egyptian hieroglyphs had over 700 distinct symbols. These forms of writing were extremely complex, and were the province of professionals who underwent a long period of training. Translation work would have required considerable skill. These writers were employed by the monarchy, which meant that the written language was the province of the ruling class.


A major advance in language came with the use of consonants that provided sounds rather pictures of objects or concepts. However, as originally formulated, hieroglyphs were used for these sounds. As an example, the sound “mu” was represented by the hieroglyph for water and was called mem for the Hebrew mayim (water). “Bu” used the hieroglyph bet, represented by a simplified form of a house.  


The first evidence of this type of writing comes from around Egypt and in the Sinai Peninsula. The Serabit el-Khadim Inscriptions were etched in stone and reflect the activities of Semitic-speaking workers and miners working in turquoise mines in the southwestern Sinai Peninsula. They have been dated to around 1800-1500 BCE. The Wadi el-Hol Inscriptions were found in the Egyptian Western desert near ancient trade routes and have been dated to around 1800 BCE.


It is very likely that the Ten Commandments were written in Proto-Canaanite script. Moses grew up among Egyptian aristocracy. He may have had some knowledge of hieroglyphics, but no one else would have.


This gives rise to the hypothesis that the Israelites were using a Proto-Canaanite script in Egypt and brought this script to Canaan when they conquered the land in about 1400 BCE.


Who invented this script? This is impossible to know. It could have been the Jews if they were in Egypt for 430 years (Exodus 12:40-41), although it is generally accepted in the Jewish tradition that they were in Egypt for less time than this. In any case, they were probably the ones who popularized it in Egypt among the working class.


This means that the name Proto-Canaanite script could be a complete misnomer and should be called an Israelite script. The Canaanites had no particular reason to popularize writing. The Israelites had very good reason to do so because of their religious texts. It was Semites who gave the letters of this alphabet their names, since they are Hebrew words and not Egyptians. It was the Israelites who came to Israel in the 1400s BCE and brought this alphabet to the Canaanite population. This included the Phoenicians. By the 1200s BCE, the Proto-Canaanite alphabet had evolved into the Phoenician alphabet and the Phoenicians were the ones who through their trading brought this script to Europe.


On the other hand, an ivory comb has been recently found in Canaanite Lachish with Pro-Canaanite writing. The archeologists have dated it to about 1,700 BCE. However, this is not based on carbon dating, but more on similarities to other writing from this time.


The Greeks had a problem with this script, in that their language is not composed of three letter roots as are semitic languages. They therefore needed vowels. What they did was to take letters which were not useful to them and they used them for vowels. The Hebrew letter ayin, for example, has a guttural sound.  It was symbolized by an eye. The Greeks borrowed it for an O, which is why the vowel O looks like an eye.


Because there were few Jews left in Israel during the Babylonian exile, this alphabet went out of use among the Jews. Hence, when they returned from Babylon, they brought with them the cuneiform script and they used this for their documents and manuscripts. Egyptian script is meant for writing on papyrus and has more curves. Cuneiform writing is meant for writing on clay tablets and is more linear without curves. This is why non-ancient Hebrew writing is more box-like. For a period, the ancient script was known. A few Dead Sea manuscripts are written in Proto-Canaanite. In some others, the name of God is written in Proto-Canaanite script, while the rest of the manuscript is in cuneiform-type writing.  


The name Proto-Canaanite is a retelling of history. It implies that the Canaanites invented the names for this alphabet, brought this script from Egypt, and popularized it in Canaan. There is no proof that this is not the case. However, it makes far more sense that it was the Jews who did this. They were also the ones who made writing the province of the common person, and not just the ruling class. They did this primarily to popularize religious texts.


Despite the existence of this script in Canaan, the Egyptian rulers did not change from hieroglyphics. They could not. It would have put a whole class of professionals out of work and taken writing away from the ruling class of Egypt to the common man.

Sign about writing.jpeg

Sign about the writing on the ostracon

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