Some 2,600 years ago, in the land of ancient Israel, a military official inked a request onto the reverse side of a pottery shard: “If there is any wine, send [quantity].” Archaeologists found the shard in the 1960s, but the boozy inscription, which had faded to near invisibility, went unnoticed for decades.
In a happy accident, researchers at Tel Aviv University recently brought the hidden message to light, Amanda Borschel-Dan reports for the Times of Israel. The team was using multispectral imaging, an image enhancement technique that relies on wavelength bands across the electromagnetic spectrum, to improve the clarity of another inscription on the pottery shard that was already known to researchers. Then Michael Cordonsky, an imaging lab and system manager at the university, decided to flip the pottery shard over.
What he saw came as a complete surprise: 50 characters, making up 17 words, etched onto the back of the fragment. Describing their new find in the journal PLOS One, researchers note that the inscription appears to be a continuation of the message on the front side, which included a blessing and a discussion of money transfers.
The faded inscription, in addition to asking for more libations, promised “a guarantee for assistance if the addressee has any requests of his own," Arie Shaus, a doctoral student in applied mathematics at Tel Aviv University, says in a statement.
"It concludes with a request for the provision of a certain commodity to an unnamed person,” Shaus continues, “and a note regarding a 'bath,' an ancient measurement of wine carried by a man named Ge'alyahu."
The ink-inscribed pottery shard, also known as an ostracon, was first discovered in 1965 at Tel Arad, a desert fortress west of the Dead Sea. According to Laura Geggel of Live Science, the artifact was dated to about 600 B.C., just before the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar attacked Jerusalem and toppled the Kingdom of Judah.
Tel Arad, which was occupied by 20 to 30 soldiers, was located on the southern border of Judah. Archaeologists found 91 ostraca there, the majority of which are addressed to the quartermaster Elyashiv, who would have been responsible for storing and distributing provisions. The newly discovered inscription was sent to Elyashiv by one Hananyahu, who may have been a quartermaster at a fortress in Beersheba, Borschel-Dan reports.
Using multi-spectral imaging, researchers were also able to illuminate four new lines of text inscription on the front of the ostracon. "[E]ach new line, word, and even a single sign is a precious addition to what we know about the First Temple period,” Anat Mendel-Geberovich, a professor at the university’s archaeology department, says in the statement.
The team’s findings also raise an intriguing question: How many other fragments, long assumed to be blank, contain a secret message?