Archaeological Digs May Change After Invisible Inscription Traced to Before King Nebuchadnezzar Is Found

(Photo: Reuters)Archaeologist Nafez Abed is seen with the sculptures and intricate mosaics in his workroom in this undated photo.

Archaeologists might start employing a new technology during excavations after the discovery of a previously invisible inscription on the back of an ancient pottery shard dating back to 600 B.C., before the destruction of Judah's Kingdom by the biblical King Nebuchadnezzar.

As Jewish News Service reported on Monday, the pottery shard had been on display at Jerusalem's Israel Museum for over 50 years, after it had been discovered at the desert fortress of Arad in 1965.

High-tech imaging allowed Tel Aviv University researchers to read a previously unseen message on the shard, which albeit seemingly unremarkable in detail, could prompt archaeologists to use new methods when analyzing biblical and other artifacts.

"The front side of the shard was thoroughly studied, and it begins with some kind of standard letter opening, with one person blessing another using the name of God, 'Y-H-W-H,'" Arie Shaus of Tel Aviv University's Department of Applied Mathematics, who studied the pottery, told JNS.org about the inscription.

Shaus noted that the use of sacred language, although a "small detail," is "interesting and important," as it sheds clues on how the modern Jewish religion and laws "are a bit different to what was practiced back then."

The high-tech multispectral imaging used in the latest research made use of additional filters specifically designed to scan pottery shards, along with algorithms to produce an optimal image.

The message, deciphered from 50 characters on the back of the shard, constitutes a request for wine, and promises assistance for the addressee, a man named El-Yashiv, who was a quartermaster of the Arad fort.

"It seems that these guys drank quite a lot, or maybe the wine was used for antiseptic reasons," Shaus said.

"Sometimes with these texts, the opening will show that the person is subordinate or superior, but this one is quite friendly. So it seems like they are colleagues, or the same rank," the researcher added.

Haaretz reported last week that the new technology also found previously unknown lines at the front of the shard, where the writing is clearer, displaying its potential at clarifying or adding to existing knowledge.

It noted that the ancient Judahite citadel uncovered at Tel Arad in the inland Negev, found 6.2 miles from the city of Arad, has provided a wealth of artifacts from the kingdom's late days.

Tel Aviv University team member Dr. Barak Sober noted that what makes the shard an anomaly is that previous discovered writings were direct orders, while the one addressed to El-Yashiv appears to be more of a personal letter.

"It uses a phrase that could mean 'Your friend,' 'Dear friend,' maybe even 'Beloved.' Clearly, this is not an order, it's something personal," Sober said.

Shaus reflected at the excitement of discovering inspirations that had not been visible to anyone for nearly 2,600 years, but noted that it also means many artifacts deemed unimportant would have been unwittingly discarded throughout the decades.

"Maybe they should just image everything," Shaus said about using the new technology.

"Using low-cost equipment like the camera used in this discovery would allow each excavation to buy or construct one ... or at least create a filtering system whereby only samples of pottery, which could have been used for writing, are saved and scanned," he added.

"Maybe we have lost more inscriptions than we have found, but didn't figure it out until now. It's tragic, but we are also optimistic, because now we have the technology to do this."

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