The oldest inscription of the Hebrew name for God ever found in an archaeological excavation in Jerusalem has been excavated on a hill opposite Mount Zion in a dig described as ''sensational'' by leading Israeli archaeologists.
The find, located in a buried cave, is a treasure trove unlike any ever before uncovered in Jerusalem.
The treasure, consisting of presents buried with the dead during the 7th century BC, included an unusual scroll of almost pure silver on which the classical Hebrew spelling of God's name Yahwehm was inscribed. The Anglicized pronunciation of Yahwehm is Jehovah.
''It's the first time in 150 years of archaeological excavations in Jerusalem that the name of the Lord has been found,'' archaeologist Gabriel Barkay of Tel Aviv University said in an interview.
The Barkay scroll was found three years ago by an American woman working as a volunteer on the excavation. It was only a month ago that technicians at the Israel Museum, using a newly devised technique, were able to unravel the 2,500 -year-old scroll. Mr. Barkay described it as an amulet containing a prayer.
It has been an anomaly of biblical archaeology that the name of God should be so rare in the city in which the ancient Hebrews felt God's presence to be most manifest. Papyrus and other materials on which the name was written deteriorated with time, and the stone or clay inscriptions found in the city were not religious in nature.
Archaeologists in Jerusalem said two or three other artifacts from the Temple period inscribed with God's name - a signet ring and pottery - have been found elsewhere but not in Jerusalem, and their dating is unclear. Previously, the earliest written mention of God's name was in the Dead Sea scrolls, which date from the first and second centuries BC.
Barkay's excavations, which have been carried out in a complex of underground tombs over the past three summers, uncovered an intact family ''repository'' in which gifts were placed with the bones of deceased relatives. The bones were gathered up and placed in the repository after the body of the deceased in the adjoining tomb had decayed - a practice which, according to Barkay, was the literal background for the phrase ''to be gathered unto one's fathers.''
Apparently because of a roof cave-in, the tomb was never visited by grave robbers. It contained close to 1,000 artifacts, including 100 pieces of silver jewelry and other items of great beauty.