Advanced imaging reveals rare Hebrew inscription from First Temple period

TAU researchers discover antiquity on back of pottery shard long on display at Israel Museum.

THE DISCOVERY from Tel Arad that was uncovered by researchers from Tel Aviv University (photo credit: MICHAEL CORDONSKY)
THE DISCOVERY from Tel Arad that was uncovered by researchers from Tel Aviv University
(photo credit: MICHAEL CORDONSKY)
It was a ground-breaking discovery hiding in plain sight for more than half a century.
Utilizing advanced-imaging technology, Tel Aviv University researchers have discovered an “invisible” inscription on the back of a pottery shard that has been on display at the Israel Museum for more than 50 years.
The ostracon (ink-inscribed pottery shard) dates back to circa 600 BCE, the eve of the Kingdom of Judah’s destruction by Nebuchadnezzar. It was first found in poor condition in 1965 at the desert fortress of Arad.
According to TAU researchers, the inscription on its front side begins with a blessing by Yahweh and then discusses money transfers.
It has been studied by archeologists and biblical scholars alike. One such study of the inscription was published Wednesday in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.
“While its front side has been thoroughly studied, its back was considered blank,” said Arie Shaus, one of the principal investigators of the study, from TAU’s department of applied mathematics.
Using multi-spectral imaging to acquire a set of images, Michael Cordonsky, of TAU’s School of Physics, noticed several marks on the ostracon’s reverse side.
“To our surprise, three new lines of text were revealed,” he said.
The researchers subsequently were able to decipher 50 characters, comprising 17 words, on the back of the ostracon.
“The content of the reverse side implies it is a continuation of the text on the front side,” explained Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin of TAU’s department of applied mathematics, another principal investigator of the study.
The multi-disciplinary research was conducted by Faigenbaum-Golovin, Shaus and Barak Sober, all doctoral students in TAU’s department of applied mathematics, and Dr. Anat Mendel- Geberovich of TAU’s department of archeology.
Additional collaborators include Prof. David Levin and Prof. Eli Turkel of TAU’s department of applied mathematics; Prof. Benjamin Sass of TAU’s department of archeology; and Cordonsky and Prof. Murray Moinester of TAU’s School of Physics.
The research team was co-led by Prof. Eli Piasetzky of TAU’s School of Physics and Prof. Israel Finkelstein of TAU’s department of archeology.
“Using multi-spectral imaging, we were also able to significantly improve the reading of the front side, adding four ‘new’ lines,” said Sober.
M e n d e l - G e b e r ov i c h described ancient Tel Arad as a military outpost and fortress at the southern border of the Kingdom of Judah, populated by 20 to 30 soldiers.
“Most of the ostraca unearthed at Arad are dated to a short time span during the last stage of the fortress’s history on the eve of the kingdom’s destruction in 586 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar,” she said.
“Many of these inscriptions are addressed to Elyashiv, the quartermaster of the fortress. They deal with the logistics of the outpost, such as the supply of flour, wine and oil to subordinate units.”
Mendel-Geberovich indicated that the new inscription begins with a request for wine, as well as a guarantee for assistance if the addressee has any special requests.
“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,” she said.
Mendel-Geberovich continued: “The newly revealed inscription features an administrative text, like most of the Arad inscriptions.
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.”
Fa i g e n b a u m - G o l ov i n added: “On a larger scale, our discovery stresses the importance of multi-spectral 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,” she lamented.
Sober described the project as ongoing research.
“We have at our disposal several additional alterations and expansions of known First Temple-period ostraca.
Hence, the future may hold additional surprises,” he said.