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Three 10th-9th Century B.C.E. Inscriptions From Tel Rehov [Saxa loquentur: Studien zur Archäologie Palälastinas/Israels – Festchrift für Volkmar Fritz (2003), 171-184]

Amihai Mazar, Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Mount Scopus, Jerusalem 91904, Israel

Three short inscriptions were found during the recent excavations at Tēl Reḥōv (Tell eṣ-Ṣārem) in the Beth-Shean Valley (Mazar 1999) (1). Two of these, from Stratum IV (9th century B.C.E.), were incised on restorable storage jars of the "hippo" type (Alexandre 1995); the third, from Stratum VI (10th century B.C.E.), was incised on a small body sherd from an unidentified jar or jug. These three inscriptions, although short and enigmatic, are a significant addition to the small corpus of inscriptions thus far known from this period. They are being published here with their preliminary minimal interpretation in order to make them available for further research and interpretation by specialists (2).

Area BArea CArea EFinal StratumDating
1--IIslamic Period
2--IIAssyrian period
3--III8th century B.C.E.
41a1aIV9th century B.C.E.
51b1bV10th/9th centuries B.C.E.
626VI10th century B.C.E.

Table 1. Correlation of local strata in Areas B, C, and E:
Final strata designations and dating

Tēl Reḥōv provided us with an opportunity to excavate extensive areas of the large Iron Age IIA city (10th-9th centuries B.C.E.). Two of the inscriptions were found in the uppermost level in Areas C and E of the lower city, which was abandoned after a heavy destruction that probably occurred during the Aramean wars following the end of the Omride Dynasty. The third was found in Area B on the upper mound.

1. The Inscriptions

Inscription No. 1 (Figs. 1-2)
Reg. No. 23138, Locus 2308, Area B, Stratum VI.

Figure 1. Inscription No. 1 (drawing by Ada Yardeni)
The sherd was found on a floor surface attributed to Stratum VI in Area B. A 10th century B.C.E. date for this level is highly probable; it may even be dated to the early 10th century, since there are good indications that the subsequent Stratum V should be dated to the second half of the 10th century (3).
The inscription was incised after firing on the body of a storage jar. The sherd is 5 × 5 cm and the letters are around 2 cm tall. The inscription consists of three signs and the remnant of a fourth. The two first letters are clearly a lamed (2 cm tall) and a nūn (2.5 cm tall). The third is a peculiar combination of signs. The right edge of the fourth letter is discernible on the left side of the sherd, and it could be an ʾalep, waw, kaf, mem, nūn, or ṣadeh. The strange combination of the third sign appears to be two letters incised on top of each other, the upper thus canceling the lower. There are various possibilities for interpreting this combination. One, suggested by Ada Yardeni, who drew the inscription, is to read a yod incised on top of a mem. In this reconstruction, however, the yod would have three horizontal lines, which is unparalleled elsewhere, and the mem appears to be too developed for this period. Another possibility is to reconstruct a ḥet on top of a mem (4). The ḥet in this case would be a closed rectangle, with no projections above or below the horizontal bars – as in most examples of this letter in lOth century inscriptions (from Gezer and Ḥorbat Rōš Zayit [Ḫirbet Rās ez-Zētūn]; see Renz 1995: III: Taf I). Thus, if we ignore the canceled lower letter in the third sign, we may read lnḥ[m?] = belonging to Nachum. If the lower letter is a mem, we may assume that the scribe forgot to write the ḥet, wrote the mem instead, and then corrected himself by writing the ḥet on top of the mem and adding another mem, of which only a tiny fragment remains on the left side of the sherd (5). The third possibility is that a bet or reš was inscribed on top of a yod or mem. One of the suggested reconstructions in that case would be lnb[ʾ], i.e., "belonging to the prophet".

Figure 2. Inscription No. 1 (photo by G. Laron).
The incision of one letter on top of another is peculiar and virtually unparalleled. The question also arises as to whether the lower letter is canceled by the upper letter or whether both should be considered in the reading. The latter (in my view less plausible) interpretation would add more possibilities for interpreting this short inscription.

Paleography: Paleographically, the letters could fit a date in the 10th century B.C.E. The lamed and nūn generally are not very indicative letters, but anyway have good parallels in 10th century inscriptions from Byblos (Renz 1995: III: Taf. I). In the few 10th century inscriptions from Palestine, the nūn is less vertical, tilted at 45 degrees from the horizontal (as at tēl ʿĀmāl [Tell al-ʿĀṣi], Tēl Bāṭāš [Tell el-Baṭāšī] and Ḥorbat Rōš Zayit; see Renz 1995: III: Taf. I).

Inscription No. 2 (Figs. 2-3)
Reg. No. 46129/1, Locus 4616, Area E, Stratum 1a (=IV).

Figure 3. Inscription No. 2 (drawing by Rahel Solar)
The inscription was found in room 4616 of Building B in Area E, attributed to Stratum IV. The building appears to be part of a sanctuary complex, and at its northeastern corner, facing a spacious courtyard, a platform with a few standing stones, interpreted as maṣṣbot, was found, with a ceramic altar nearby. The same room contained fragments of wall plaster decorated with seal impressions of volutes and lotus buds. It is possible that this exceptional building served in the administration of the open-air sanctuary. This building, like the rest of Stratum IV, was violently destroyed, probably during the Aramean wars following the end of the Omride dynasty, ca. 840-830 B.C.E.
The inscription was incised after firing on the shoulder of a restorable "hippo" storage jar. It is 13 cm long, the two mems are 5-5.5 cm tall, and the second letter (probably an ʿayin) is 2-2.2 cm tall. Four letters were preserved: two on the right side and two on the left side of a break, in which two or, less probably, three additional letters may be reconstructed. The lower ends of the tails of two missing letters are preserved. The mem at the beginning and at the end of the inscription is clear. The second letters from the right and from the left are identical, and can only be an ʿayin, although their elongated oval shape and the tail on the right lower side are unparalleled. There is also a short incision above the right-hand ʿayin that cannot be explained (6) Of the preserved edges of the third and fourth letters, the third has a diagonal leg and the fourth a vertical leg. Thus, the third letter could be a bet, kaf, mem, nūn, or pe, and the fourth letter a waw, nūm (less plausible), samek, qōf, or reš. Furthermore, the break in the inscription is large enough to include three letters. Consequently, the reconstruction and interpretation of the inscription remains enigmatic. The following possibilities can be suggested:

Secure reading: mʿ[.][.]ʿm

Ahituv has suggested that the first mem is probably the preposition "from", which appears in several Hebrew inscriptions, mainly in the Samaria ostraca. According to this interpretation, the inscription should be understood as mentioning the name of the sender: from [personal name]. Ahituv suggests the following possible reconstructions:

mʿmsʿm – "from 'Amas'am"
mʿmrʿm – "from 'Omri'am"
mʿnrʿm – "from 'Aner'am"

The component ʿm as an ending of a personal name appears in many biblical and other West-Semitic names, for example the biblical names yrbʿm (Jeroboam), rḥbʿm (Rehoboam); ʾlyʿm (an Aramean or Ammonite name; Avigad and Sass 1997: No. 1105), kmšʿm (Moabite; Avigad and Sass 1997: No. 1035), and ʾdnʿm in Samaria ostraca Nos. 10 and 19 (Ahituv 1992: 171, 178). The ʿm component means "parental uncle, kinsfolk" (7). According to this interpretation, the inscription may be defined as a dedication to the sanctuary by the person whose name follows the mem. The main problem with this suggestion is that the preposition mem signifying "from" is unparalleled in jar inscriptions, although it is known on ostraca.

Figure 4. Inscription No. 1 (photo by G. Laron).
Another, less plausible, reconstruction suggested by Baruch Margalit reads: mʿbd[.]ʿm. The word mʿbd appears in the Tell Sīrān inscription (ca. 600 B.C.E.), meaning "the deed (or deeds) of". It is common with the Aramean use of the form ʿbd, and might be considered to reflect Aramean influence on the Ammonite language (Ahituv 1992: 223). Yet the identification of this word in the Tēl Reḥōv inscription remains enigmatic. The first tail could be of the letter bet, although this would make it an exceptionally long bet. Since the letter dalet does not have a tail, a third letter with long tail would have to be reconstructed to its left. This is a problematic, albeit not impossible, interpretation. It is still difficult to understand it in combination with ʿm (= people?), unless ʿm is connected to the letter with a long tail preceding it, giving the possibilities of nʿm, sʿm, qʿm, and rʿm. Of these, nʿm would make most sense. The word appears several times in Proverbs and Psalms, meaning "good, lovely, happy", but this reconstruction remains very tentative and insecure.

Paleography: The two mems have an exceptionally long leg, but in other respects, are similar to the mems in the Mesha and Tēl Dān inscriptions, and differ from 10th century mem examples at Gezer and Byblos (cf. Renz 1995: III: Taf. 1-2). Notably unique are the two ʿayins with the small tail at the lower right-hand side, a feature unparalleled elsewhere. The letter is also elongated compared to other 10th-09th century inscriptions, in which the ʿayin is almost always a circle (8).

Inscription No. 3 (Figs. 5-6)
Reg. No. 54323, Locus 5425, Area C, Stratum IV.

Figure 5. Inscription No. 3 (drawing by Rahel Solar).
Room 5425 is part of an exceptional building that was destroyed by heavy fire. Its western wing included Room 5425, and two additional small chambers behind it, all three rooms arranged in a line, with benches along their walls. The eastern wing included two rooms with plastered walls, which produced a large assemblage of finds; among them an exceptional decorated model shrine, as well as other finds indicating wealth (9). The building appears to have been particularly elaborate and rich, and the three rooms with benches in the western wing seem to have had a special function, rather than serving as regular dwellings.
Like inscription No. 2, this inscription also was incised on the shoulder of a "hippo" type storage jar. It consists of seven large letters: those with long tails are 4.5-5.5 cm tall and the others 2.5 cm tall. The incisions were made after firing with a sharp tool. Six letters can easily be read, while the fourth from the right, although clear in shape, is enigmatic. A close examination shows that the first three letters were incised in a somewhat different manner from the others; it appears that more effort was required for their incision (10). Their orientation is also somewhat different from the other letters. The reading is:


The shape of the fourth sign is unparalleled. It could be a variant of a yod. The upper and lower horizontal lines are common to a yod; the difference is in the shape of the central part of the letter, which is unusual. A few possible parallels for such a yod can be found in Samaria ostraca Nos. 5 and 51 (see photographs in Ahituv 1992: 168,196) (11), but these are not exact parallels (12). An identical sign is known among Egyptian hieratic numerals for 6, used only for dates (Möller 1912: 658-666) (13). If it is a hieratic numeral, it would be the earliest example of such numerals in Hebrew inscriptions. However, a hieratic numeral for a date does not make much sense in the context of this inscription. The meaning of the first word of the inscription thus depends on the meaning of the fourth sign. If it is a yod, the word may be read as lšqy. This is similar to the inscription from ʿĒn Gev (Ḫirbet el-ʿĀšeq), in which the word lšqyʾ was incised on the shoulder of an oval jar found in Stratum III (B. Mazar et al. 1964: 27-29, 32, 43, Fig. 8:1, Pl. 13), which is contemporaneous with Tēl Reḥōv Stratum IV. The word was interpreted as the Aramaic lešaqya, "belonging to šr hmšqym = the cup bearer," a well known title for a high official in the Bible and throughout the ancient Near East (B. Mazar et al. 1964: 27-28). In the event that the fourth letter is a numeral or another sign, the first name would be composed of the two letters, šq (14).

Figure 6. Inscription No. 3 (photo by G. Laron).
The last three letters can be understood as the name nmš. The name is known from the Bible as that of Jehu's father or grandfather (Jehu son of Nimshi appears in 1Kgs 19, 16, 2Kgs 9, 20, and 1Chr 22, 7; Jehu son of Jehoshaphat son of Nimshi appears in 2Kgs 9, 2.14). In all these passages, the name is written with a yod at the end. The letters lnmš "belonging to Nimshi", were incised on a "hippo" jar similar to the Tēl Reḥōv example found at Tēl ʿĀmāl, a site not far from Tēl Reḥōv, in a contemporary late 10th or 9th century context (Strata III-IV; Levy and Edelstein 1972: 336, Fig. 5, Pl. XXV:4). These strata produced pottery similar to that of Tēl Reḥōv Strata IV - V. Paleographically, however, the nūn and mem in the Tēl ʿĀmāl inscription look different to the Tēl Reḥōv examples: they are diagonal and lack the sharp angles. The shin is not entirely clear, since the various lines are not connected, and Levy and Edelstein therefore suggested that it was a numeral, while the reading of the name Nimshi was suggested by Lemaire (1973: 559). The name nmš (without a yod) appears also on ostracon No. 56 from Samaria (Diringer 1934: 35, Tav. VI), on two Hebrew seals (Avigad and Sass 1997: 128, No. 266; 218, No. 574, and p. 515) and in Ugarit (Gordon 1965: 444, No. 1653; Lemaire 1973; EncBib 5: 874; ABD 4: 1118).

Paleography: All the letters have close parallels in the Mesha stela and other 9th century inscriptions. The scribe of this inscription appears to have had more difficulties in its execution than the scribe who incised inscription No. 2. Each part the three left letters were made by incising separate deep vertical lines which were later combined by thinner lines while the letters in inscription No. 2 are more "fluid" (15).

2. Discussion

The three inscriptions from Tēl Reḥōv are an important addition to the very small corpus of alphabetic inscriptions from the 10th-9th centuries B.C.E. found in Israel. The corpus includes the following inscriptions:

10th Century B.C.E.

1. The "Gezer calendar" (Ahituv 1992: 149-152; Renz 1995: I: 30-37,Taf I:1).
2. Tēl ʿĀmāl, short inscription on jar (mentioned above; Renz 1995: I: 29-30, Taf. I:3).
3. Ḥorbat Rōš Zayit, short ink inscription on pottery sherd (could be early 9th century) (Renz 1995: I: 37-39, Taf. I:2; Gal and Alexandre 2000: 133-134).
4. Tēl Bāṭāš, short inscription on pottery bowl (Renz 1995: I: 30, Taf. I:4)
5. Beth Shemesh (Ḫirbet er Rumēle), short inscription on a stonc object (Bunimovitz and Lederman 1997: 29-30).
6. Kfar Veradīm in western Galilee, inscription incised on metal bowl found in Phoenician tomb (Alexandre 2002). This is the longest inscription from this period, excluding the "Gezer calendar".
7. Arad, inscription No. 81, attributed to Stratum XII (Renz 1995: I: 46-47, Taf. II:4).

9th Century BCE

8. Tēl Dān, Aramaic inscription on bowl (Avigad 1968; Gibson 1975: 5-6).
9. ʿĒn Gev, Aramaic inscription (mentioned above; Gibson 1975: 56).
10. Tell el-Ḥamme in the Jordan Valley, inscription on jar handle, mentioning Ahab (Renz 1995: I: 47, Taf. II:6).
11.-15. Five short inscriptions from Hazor, one (probably Aramaic) from Stratum IX (Naveh 1989: 346-347) and four short and broken inscriptions from Stratum VIII (Yadin et al. 1960: 66-68). The latter were defincd as Phoenician by Delavault and Lemaire (1979: 5-12), and as partly Phoenician and partly Aramaic by Finkelstcin (1999a: 61, following Sass). It appears, however, that in such short and fragmentary inscriptions of the 10th-9th centuries, it is almost impossible to distinguish Phoenician from Hebrew, and Aramaic can be defined only when clear grammatical data are available (see also Naveh 1989: 346).
16.-20. Arad ostraca Nos. 76-79 and 81 from Stratum XI were attributed to the 9th century (Renz 1995: I: 44-46; Taf. II:1-5).
21.-22. Eshtemoa (es-Samūʿa), the number "five" spelled on two pottery vessels (could also be 10th century B.C.E.) (Renz 1995: I: 65-66, Taf. IV:2).
23. Tēl Kinrōt (Tell el-ʿOrēme), short inscription (Renz 1995: I: 65, Taf. II:5).

This corpus, together with the three new inscriptions from Tēl Reḥōv, includes mainly inscriptions on pottery vessels or other objects. Most are incised, with only a few written in ink. This everyday use of writing, although modest in scope, is significant evidence for the discussion regarding the extent of literacy during this period. In the debate over the rise of the state in ancient Israel and the beginning of Israelite historiography, the lack of literacy is considered an important factor (Jamieson-Drake 1991: 136-159; Finkelstein 1999b: 40). Na'aman maintains that writing in ancient Israel began during the reign of David or Solomon, but remained limited to the royal court until the broader spread of literacy in the 8th century B.C.E. (1997: 60-61). The evidence, albeit scant, of writing on everyday objects in Israel and Judah during the 10th-9th centuries allows for the assumption that many more inscriptions were written on perishable materials (papyrus and parchment). The use of writing on everyday objects like pottery vessels is probably only the tip of the iceberg of literacy in ancient Israel and neighboring regions during this period. The mid-9th century monumental inscriptions from these neighboring areas – the Moabite Mesha stela and "Kemoshyat" inscription and the Aramean victory stela from Tē Dān (Ahituv 1992: 247-261; Biran and Naveh 1995), as well as the somewhat later Kuntillet ʿAǧrūd Hebrew inscriptions (Ahituv 1992: 152-161; Renz 1995: I: 47-64) – are evidence of the extensive knowledge and use of writing in the territories of ancient Israel and its neighbors during the second half of the 9th century. The three inscriptions from Tēl Reḥōv are thus a modest yet important addition to the limited data on Hebrew writing and the spread of literacy in the crucial period from the mid-10th to mid-9th centuries B.C.E. (16).


1. The excavations at Tēl Reḥōv are being carried out since 1997 under the direction of A. Mazar on behalf of the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University and thanks to the generous support of Mr. John Camp. Five seasons were conducted between the years 1997-2002 in seven excavation areas. (back)
2. Ada Yardeni, Shmuel Ahituv and Larry Herr provided comments which are cited in this paper. Diana Edelman, André Lemaire and Benjamin Sass helped in clearing various points. Gabi Laron photographed the inscriptions, Ada Yardeni drew inscription No. 1, Rahel Solar drew inscriptions Nos. 2-3 and Edna Sachar edited this paper. I thank them all. (back)
3. New 14C dates from Stratum V done at the University of Groningen by J. van der Plicht in gas-counting method corroborate a late 10th century date for the destruction of this stratum. These new dates will be published in the near future by H. Bruins, A. Mazar, and J. van der Plicht. For previous 14C. dates see Mazar and Carmi 2001. (back)
4. This reading was suggested by P. Kyle McCarter and Frank M. Cross during the brief discussion following my lecture in the Socicty of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting held Orlando/FL, in 1999, as well as by Shmuel Ahituv. (back)
5. I would like to thank D. Edelman, a member of the Tēl Reḥōv staff, for the suggestion in the last sentence. (back)
6. Larry Herr suggested that these small tails are "simply a function of the post-firing engraving. It's hard to make circles (or ovals) in such circumstances – note how they had to use 4 strokes!" (back)
7. S. Ahituv has kindly added the following comments to his suggcstions: (a) For ʿmsʿm, compare with the biblical names ʿmsyh (Amasyah) and ʿms (Amos), or the Ammonite name ʿmsʾl ('Amas'el on a seal; cf. Avigad and Sass 1997: No. 964). For the meaning of the name, compare with Is 46,3 haʿmusîm minnî-ḇeṭen "who have been carried since birth (lit. from the womb)". (b) For ʿmrʿm, compare with the biblical name ʿmry (Omri). The name is derived from the root ʿmr attested in Arabic, meaning "to live, to worship (a god)". (c) For ʿnrʿm, compare with the biblical name ʿnr. But in the Samaritan Pentateuch and in the Genesis Apocryphon from the Dead Sea Scrolls it is transmitted as ʿnrm. This version might represent ʿnr plus a mem of mimation (common in ancient names). (back)
8. Herr writes: "The script looks Hebrew with the long curved legs. The oval ʿayins are also Hebrew rather than Phoenician. I suppose the inscription could be Aramaic, as well. but I doubt it." (back)
9. No entrance connecting the two wings of the building has been found thus far, but only the southern part of the building has been excavated; the entrance may be located further to the north. (back)
10. I owe this comment to Ora Mazar and Miriam Lavi of the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University who examined the inscription under a microscope. They also confirmed that all three inscriptions were incised after firing. (back)
11. My thanks go to A. Lemaire for these parallels. (back)
12. A far less plausible reading is the letter mem. In the word ḥmš on two pottery vessels dated to the 10th-9th centuries from Eshtemoa (Yeivin 1987), the Ietter mem is written vertically, in a manner reminiscent of our sign but in reverse (from side to side). It does not appear, however, that our letter could be a mem, especially since a regular mem appears in the same inscription. (back)
13. My thanks go to S. Ahituv for this comment. (back)
14. S. Ahituv, who suggested this possibility, wrote the following note on the name: "The proper name šq might be a shortened form of a theophoric name. Names like šqn, šwqn are not attested in Hebrew, but they are attested in Old South Arabic, Thamudic and Safaitic (Koehler and Baumgartner 2001: 1448 s.v. II šwq; Ryckmans 1934: 207), and in Palmyrene (Stark 1971: 51, 53). Koehler and Baumgartner after Ryckmans derive these names from šwq II / šqq II, 'to desire'. Stark interprcts from šoq 'thigh, leg'. If Stark's proposal is preferred, I would suggest that the word for 'thigh, leg' is used here as euphemism, meaning 'offspring', and compare it with the Talmudic dictum ywrš krʿyh dʾbwh 'an heir is the thigh(s) of the father' (Babylonian Talmud, 'Eruvin 52b)." (back)
15. L. Herr wrote me the following comment on the paleography of this inscription: "I too concluded the 4th letter was probably a variant of yod. The second horizontal is simply ligatured instead of brought to a single upright line. However, this is not a very happy solution. The tail is too long; the form is more difficult to engrave post-firing! Also note that no other letters in this inscription are ligatured in any way. If this is a mem, it's backwards and completely wrong. The Ietters fit the 9th century better than the last inscription. The shorter legs on mem and nūn, the more conservativc curve of the legs, and thc qop just beginning the lowering of the right semi-circle of the head fit your date very well. The script is also Hebrew. Thc Vs on the shin not meeting at the top of the middle occurs very frequently. Note also the mem docs the same thing on the head. This is very common in the 8th century". (back)
16. Since inscriptions Nos. 2 and 3 were found in buildings that might have had a public function, it may be claimed that they were related to elite activity and consequently cannot have implications for the general spread of literacy during this period (I owe this comment to Diana Edelman). However, the general argument against literacy before the 8th century is that it either did not exist at all or was limited to the royal court. Even if the Tēl Reḥōv inscriptions are related to elite activity, this was a local elite of priests, merchants, etc. Thus, the inscriptions should signify the spread of literacy to a broad spectrum of Israelite society. (back)


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