Ancient wine request uncovered on museum piece

20th June, 2017 by Phoebe French

A team from the University of Tel Aviv has uncovered a hidden request for wine on the back of an ancient Hebrew pottery fragment that dates back to 600 B.C.

(Photo: Plos One Journal): “(A) color (RGB) image; (B) MS image corresponding to 830 nm; (C) manual drawing (facsimile) of the proposed reading. In red: our alterations and additions with respect to the original publication. Hollow shapes represent conjectured characters.”

The pottery shard, first discovered by archaeologists in 1965 in Israel, has been on display for the past 50 years in the Israel Museum. It is clearly inscribed in ink on the front side with a message from a soldier called Hananyahu (thought to be a quartermaster in Beersheba), encamped in a desert fortress.

However, it was not until recently that archaeologists exposed the invisible text written on the back. Once exposed to oxygen, ink on clay fades quickly which perhaps accounts for the fact that the reverse of the shard was passed over by scholars at the time.

Using multispectral imaging technology, they uncovered three previously hidden lines of text that reveal that the desert was dry in all senses of the word.

The text begins with a request for wine: “if there is any wine, send [quantity].” There is also a reference to a ‘bat’ of wine, an ancient unit of measurement for liquids. From the 50 characters identified, researchers were able to decipher 17 words.

The hidden text was exposed quite by chance when Michael Cordonsky, imaging lab and system manager at the School of Physics and Astronomy at the university, decided to photograph the back of the fragment.

The new imaging technique was developed by a team of applied mathematicians, archaeologists and physicists at the University of Tel Aviv, co-directed by professor of archaeology Israel Finkelstein and physics professor Eli Piasetzky.

The MS imaging also revealed four previously invisible lines on the front side of the fragment which, according to the team ‘substantially changed previous readings [of the text].’

The scientists and archaeologists involved published their findings in Plos One journal under the title ‘Multispectral imaging reveals biblical-period inscription unnoticed for half a century.’ The study represents the first attempt at acquiring multispectral images from a pottery shard (or ostracon) from the epigraphic fragments unearthed at Tel Arad.

As the article states, the finds uncovered at Tel Arad in the 1960s ‘contain commands regarding supply of commodities (wine, oil, flour) to military units and movement of troops, set against the stormy events in the final years before the fall of Judah’.

Tel Arad (old Arad) is situated six miles west of modern-day Arad. The site consists of a lower portion, first settled around 4000 BC and an upper hill, first inhabited in around 1150 BC.

The upper hill later became known as ‘the Citadel’ and was constructed around the time of the reigns of King David and Solomon (c1002 BC – 931BC). The entire Tel Arad site has been the source of many archaeological finds, often referring to offerings of wine, oil and wheat given to the god Yahweh.

Israel has been the site of many important wine-related archaeological finds in recent years, particularly in the area surrounding the Canaanite palace complex at Tel Kabri.

A room full of wine jars was discovered in 2013 and in March 2016, archaeologists disclosed that they believed the palace had its own winery as well as a storeroom.

In October 2016, archaeologists stated that a wine order written on a papyrus scroll, recovered by The Israeli Antiquities Authority from “thieves” and carbon-dated to the 7th century BC, was the earliest written reference to Jerusalem.

In December last year, an ancient wine press was uncovered during construction work at a new school in Ashkelon.

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