Invisible 2500-Year-Old Hebrew Inscription Brought to Light by Advanced Technique

Invisible 2500-Year-Old Hebrew Inscription Brought to Light by Advanced Technique

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Although many people seek out unknown artifacts and sites, it is worthwhile to re-examine previously discovered relics as well. New information can be attained from taking a subsequent look at an artifact, especially if updated technology is involved. For example, researchers have found “hidden” text on a pottery shard which has been on display in The Israel Museum for over half a century. The recently detected inscription adds to the knowledge of the First Temple period.

Phys.Org reports that when Tel Aviv University researchers used multispectral imaging on the ostracon (an ink-inscribed shard of pottery), they were surprised at the appearance of marks on the reverse side of the artifact.

Despite the front side of the ostracon having been well-studied over the years, it was believed the reverse side was blank. However, the use of advanced imaging technology helped the researchers to find three lines of text on the back and four previously unknown lines on the front of the ostracon. Altogether, 50 characters, comprising 17 words, were found on the back of the ostracon.

The reverse side of the ostracon

The reverse side of the ostracon. ( Faigenbaum-Golovin et al .)

This particular ostracon dates to around 600 BC and was unearthed in poor condition at the Arad desert fortress in 1965. It is part of the “ Arad corpus ”, a group of about 100 Hebrew inscriptions unearthed in the 1960s.

The researchers explain in their article that the time of the artifact’s creation “is characterized by strong literary activity.” However,

“The more significant texts of this era were probably written on papyri, which did not survive due to the local humid climate. The majority of existing texts unearthed in archaeological excavations are Hebrew ink inscriptions written on ceramic potsherds (ostraca). They generally deal with mundane issues such as orders related to troop movement and shipment of provisions, records of ownership, and name lists.”

Aerial view of Tel Arad

Aerial view of Tel Arad. ( Public Domain )

This ostracon is “a letter sent to Elyashiv from one Ḥananyahu (possibly a quartermaster in Beer Sheba, and thus Elyashiv’s peer), mentioning transfer of silver (used as a currency).” (Faigenbaum-Golovin et al.) It discusses logistics of the Tel Arad military outpost, specifically wine, flour, and oil supplies. Arie Shaus, one of the principal investigators of the study, has described the recently detected inscription:

"The new inscription begins with a request for wine, as well as a guarantee for assistance if the addressee has any requests of his own. It concludes with a request for the provision of a certain commodity to an unnamed person, and a note regarding a 'bath,' an ancient measurement of wine carried by a man named Ge'alyahu."

Front of the ostracon.

Front of the ostracon. ( Faigenbaum-Golovin et al .)

Although the topic of the inscription is mundane, Dr. Mendel-Geberovich says that "Its importance lies in the fact that each new line, word, and even a single sign is a precious addition to what we know about the First Temple period."

Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin, another of the study’s lead researchers, explains how the results of their study may have a wider impact “On a larger scale, our discovery stresses the importance of multispectral imaging to the documentation of ostraca. It's daunting to think how many inscriptions, invisible to the naked eye, have been disposed of during excavations."

With many other First Temple-period ostraca at hand, the researchers are hopeful new surprises will arise with continued study.

The research results are published in PLOS ONE .

Top Image: Previously undetected inscription found on the reverse of the pottery shard. Source: American Friends of Tel Aviv University (AFTAU)

By Alicia McDermott

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