An interdisciplinary team from the Tel Aviv University performed a multispectral imaging using a modified household digital camera and a new technique to discover Hebrew inscriptions on a First Temple-era shard. The discovery raises the possibility that other blank shards from the period may also contain such undiscovered texts and plans are on for wider reexamination of other shards from that time.
In the 1960s, a corpus of 91 ink-on-clay shards (ostraca) was written on the eve of the Kingdom of Judah’s destruction by Nebuchadnezzar was found at Tel Arad, West of the Dead Sea. The shards were on the floor of a single room, and the writing was legible which was discerned by the top scholars. This shard is on display at the Israel Museum for the past 50 years.
The shards contain lists of supplies and orders from military quartermasters, and they add value to the study of Hebrew language. The sociology and economy of the period are examined in detail. Today, new technology aids in the discovery of the invisible words and even sentences on an otherwise blank verso side of the first shards.
Most of the correspondence and literature of this period was written on biodegradable papers. Therefore, the biblical Hebrew inscriptions are on ostraca. Once these shards are unearthed, the ink on the clay starts fading which is the reason why most shards appeared blank previously.
An experiment in multispectral (MS) imaging conducted on an ostracon found from the Tel Arad hoard revealed that the text which was undetectable by the human eye appeared clearer with this technology against the earlier studies. The new text on the verso side of the Ostracon No 16 was found by chance.
Michael Cordonsky, the imaging lab, and system manager at the School of Physics and Astronomy flipped the shards and found three lines of writing from two and a half millennia ago. With the new MS imaging system, around 45 new characters have been added to the facing side of the Ostracon No 16 which means almost 20 words with a changed reading. The verso side bears more than 50 characters which translate into 17 new words.
The clay shard was photographed in a dark room with a modified Canon SLR 450D digital camera. Different lenses and filters were used including a Tamron SP AF90mm F/2.8 Di 1:1 Macro lens. The internal Canon IR cut filter was removed using Lifepixel. It was replaced with a transparent glass having the same refractive index.
Most cameras used to perform the MS imaging cost around $100,000. However, the Tel Aviv team’s version cost under $5,000. The Times of Israel spoke with Arie Shaus, a team member and applied mathematician. Shaus has a doctorate in mathematical and statistical techniques for picture processing. According to Shaus, the modified MS imaging camera is truly a game-changer for archaeological studies. Shaus revealed that the team would continue to photograph other ostraca from this First Temple period.
Importance of the new inscriptions
According to the scientific secretary of the Academy of the Hebrew language, the existing inscriptions in the Arad pottery hoard are quite vital to study ancient Hebrew.
The 91-piece trove has a correspondence between military supply masters, addressed to a person called Elyashiv. Elyashiv was the quartermaster in the fortress. Most of the language has words talking about food and shipment orders. According to an article in PLOS, the inscriptions has commands regarding supply of commodities like wine, oil, and flour to the military units and movement of troops which was in the final years before the fall of Judah.
Ostraca No. 16 is a letter to Elyashiv from Hananyahu. It discusses the transfer of silver and Hananyahu demanding wine. According to Ronit Gadish, the scientific secretary of the Academy of the Hebrew language, the trove teaches grammar, vocabulary on development and form of writing, spelling, and usage of Hebrew at that time. Gadish states that the trove also throws light on the sociology and economy of the era.
Shaus is of the opinion that the imaging technique will soon become an integral tool in most research.
Featured Image© Photo Courtesy Tel Aviv University