Discovery of Hidden Text Prompts New Approach to Biblical Digs in Israel
JNS.org – The recent discovery of a previously invisible inscription on the back of an ancient pottery shard — which had been on display at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum for more than 50 years — has prompted Tel Aviv University researchers to consider what other hidden inscriptions may have been discarded during archaeological digs, before the use of high-tech imaging.
The ancient shard in question was discovered in poor condition at the desert fortress of Arad in 1965; it dates back to 600 BC, before Judah’s kingdom was destroyed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. Its discovery added to knowledge about the First Temple period in Israel.
Shaus explained that this use of sacred language, although a “small detail,” is “interesting and important” because it shows the Jewish religion and laws currently used by modern Jews “are a bit different to what was practiced back then.”
The fact that Jews living in Israel 2,600 years ago could “freely” write the full spelling of God’s name differs from modern Jewish law, which forbids the practice.
The discovery process
Modern-day researchers used high-tech multispectral imaging — which was unavailable 50 years ago — to reveal previously unseen markings on the back side of the shard.
After deciphering 50 characters on the back, researchers realized that the previously hidden inscription was a continuation of the text on the front. The newly discovered text begins with a request for wine, and a guarantee for assistance if the addressee has any of his own requests.
“It seems that these guys drank quite a lot, or maybe the wine was used for antiseptic reasons,” Shaus observed.
The multispectral imaging also improved the reading of the front side, adding four new lines of text. According to Shaus, the message on the shard was addressed to a man called El-Yashiv, who was a quartermaster of the Arad fort.
“He had some sort of large storage facility and people brought him wine, olive oil and flour, and he was corresponding with neighboring forts and armies around the fort,” Shaus explained.
A man named Hananyahu, who may have been a quartermaster in a neighboring fort in Be’er Sheva, wrote the inscription and “had quite a friendly correspondence” with El-Yashiv, Shaus said.
“Sometimes with these texts, the opening will show that the person is [a] subordinate or superior, but this one is quite friendly,” he added. “So it seems [that] they [were] colleagues, or the same rank.”
The new discovery is part of several large research projects currently underway in Israel to obtain imagery of available artifacts.
While the main focus of the research is to enhance existing inscriptions, the idea to scan the back of the pottery shard at the Israel Museum was prompted when a Tel Aviv University technician, Michael Cordonsky, suspected that there may have been additional writing on the back.
“We scanned the back and we were astounded with what we discovered,” Shaus said. “It looked terrific using this technique, and it had not been visible to anyone for 2,600 years. It is incredible, and we were extremely excited to have discovered this kind of material, but it’s also a bit tragic because now we think about all of the inscriptions that we may have lost.” The reason for this is that during archaeological excavations, a lot of pottery is found and later discarded if there are no visible markings.
As a result of the new discovery, researchers will likely approach how they handle pottery shards found during archaeological digs differently.
“Maybe they should just image everything,” Shaus said. “Using low-cost equipment like the camera used in this discovery, [we could] at least create a filtering system whereby only samples of pottery, which could have been used for writing, are saved and scanned. Maybe we have lost more inscriptions than we have found, but [we] didn’t figure [that] out until now. It’s tragic, but we are also optimistic, because now we have the technology to do this.”