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Archaeologists discover previously invisible inscription on 2,600-year-old artifact


Ostracon images are courtesy of the Institute of Archaeology, Tel Aviv University (Photographer: Michael Cordonsky) via PLOS.Org

John Burger - published on 06/20/17

Lines on pottery shard suggest a very different attitude toward the pronouncement of God's name.

What secrets lay beneath the earth has always been the motivation for archaeologists. Now, in a tantalizing discovery, there may be many secrets still to be discovered in already unearthed artifacts.

A previously invisible inscription on the back of an 2,600-year-old pottery shard, which was on display at a museum in Jerusalem for over 50 years, has given researchers some new insight into life during Israel’s First Temple period.

The ancient shard was uncovered at the desert fortress of Arad in 1965 and dates back to 600 BC, before the Kingdom of Judah was destroyed by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, according to Jewish News Service.

Researchers used high-tech multispectral imaging, unavailable 50 years ago, which revealed previously unseen markings on the backside of the shard. The imaging process adds additional filters, specifically to scan pottery shards, or pieces of stone with inscriptions called ostraca, and uses algorithms to produce an optimal image. After deciphering 50 characters on the back, researchers understood 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.

More significantly, perhaps, is its comparatively free use of the tetragrammaton, the four Hebrew letters used for the name of God, Y-H-W-H. In Arie Shaus’s estimation, it demonstrates a very different attitude towards Jewish laws. Shaus, of Tel Aviv University, was one of the principal researchers who studied the artifact.

“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,’” Shaus told This use of sacred language 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 forbidding the practice.

The new discovery is part of several large research projects currently underway in Israel to obtain imagery of all available ostraca, or potsherds.  The multispectral imaging, which in this case discovered four new lines of text of the front side of the shard, is to enhance existing inscriptions, the idea to scan the back of the shard came up when a Tel Aviv University technician suspected there may have been additional writing there.

“We scanned the back and we were astounded with what we discovered. It looked terrific using this technique, and it had not been visible to anyone for 2,600 years,” Shaus said. “But it’s also a bit tragic because now we think about all of the inscriptions that we may have lost.” During archaeological digs, a lot of pottery is discarded.

No longer. Because of this discovery, researchers will approach how they handle pottery shards found during archaeological digs differently.

“Maybe they should just image everything,” Shaus said. “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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