Researchers at Tel Aviv University have discovered a hidden inscription on the back of a shard of pottery. The message? A 2,600-year-old request for wine from an Israeli soldier.
The soldier, whose name had been Hananyahu, must have been running low on his supply of wine. In the year 600BC he sent a request for more wine to his friend Elyashiv. It seems to be a normal request from a soldier to his friend, but it's not the content that makes this find interesting. It's that the inscription has been right under scientists' noses for five decades. They've also only just found out about it.
In 1965, archaeologists found a pottery shard that had a message inscribed on the front. According to the translated words, Hananyahu sent a message about God and money transfers to Elyashiv. What scientists didn't know at the time was that there was another message written in “invisible ink” on the back of the shard.
The pottery shard is something called an “ostracon”. An ostracon is a piece of pottery, usually broken off from a whole earthenware piece, that people used to write on. They wrote lists, receipts, and letters by inscribing their message onto the ostracon.
Scientists have thoroughly studied the front part of the shard. They thought that the back of the shard was blank, and so didn't bother to study it. When scientists used multispectral imaging to take images of the shard, they found something that surprised them. It turns out that the Israeli soldier Hananyahu had written four more lines on the front of the shard. However, that's not all. The scientists also discovered several scratches on the back side of the ostracon.
Upon closer inspection, the scientists found that these scratches are a continuation of the letter inscribed on the front of the shard. They were able to make out 50 characters that form 17 more words.
This discovery thus paints the study of ostraca in a new light. The researchers say that their discovery shows the importance of multispectral imaging in studying ostraca. Multispectral imaging is a process that combines multiple imaging bands into a single optical system. Through this process, the scientists were able to discover three more lines of words in the message. It may be that many more shards of pottery have hidden inscriptions that only multispectral imaging will reveal.
The newly-discovered inscriptions weren't just a plaintive plea for wine, however. They were likely a continuation of the inscriptions on the front of the shard, which were about administrative matters. The “new” inscriptions also showed the Israeli soldier offering his assistance should Elyashiv need it.
With this new discovery, the researchers are looking forward to examining other ostraca with multispectral imaging. There are several other ostraca from the same site, the ancient fortress and military outpost of Tel Arad. Thus, there may be more discoveries of the same nature in the future.
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