A tiny clay fragment dating back to the 14th century BC, discovered during excavations in Jerusalem, contains the oldest written document ever found in the holy city, researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem believe.

The find, uncovered outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls, is thought to be part of a tablet from a royal archive and further testifies to the importance of Jerusalem as a major city in the Late Bronze Age, long before its conquest by King David, the researchers say.

The Hebrew University said the fragment, measuring 2 by 2.8 centimetres in size and one centimetre thick, was uncovered recently during sifting of fill excavated from beneath a 10th century BC tower located beneath the southern wall of the Old City of Jerusalem.

It contains cuneiform symbols in ancient Akkadian, the bridge language of that era.

According to Professor Wayne Horowitz, of the university’s Institute of Archaeology, the script on the tablet is of a very high level and was most likely prepared by a skilled scribe. Scribes usually prepared tablets for the royal households of the time.

The tablet is believed to be a contemporary of some 380 tablets discovered in the 19th century at Amarna in Egypt in the archives of Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten), who lived in the 14th century BC.

Those archives included tablets sent to him by kings who were subservient to him in Canaan and Syria. Among them are six tablets from Abdi—Heba, the Canaanite ruler of Jerusalem.

The tablet fragment in Jerusalem is most likely part of a message that would have been sent from the king of Jerusalem — possibly Abdi— Heba — back to Egypt, said Doctor Eilat Mazar of the Institute of Archaeology, who conducted the excavations.

The most ancient written record previously found in Jerusalem was a tablet found in an 8th century BC water tunnel, located adjacent to the Old City of Jerusalem. The tablet, celebrating the completion of the tunnel, is now in a museum in Istanbul.

Details of the discovery of the 14th century BC tablet appear in the current issue of the Israel Exploration Journal.