For 2,600 years, the message was hidden on a stone tablet. It had been missed by the best Hebrew scholars and by thousands of museum visitors over decades. But using the latest imaging technology, scientists have revealed a rare message from biblical Judea saying "Send us wine".
A team of Israeli scientists has found that one particular shard of pottery, held in a museum for 50 years had been hiding a message. Using full spectrum light imaging techniques they revealed the hidden message, between a soldier in a desert fortress and his quartermaster.
Although the beginning of the message discussing supplies for the camp had been visible, new words have been added and an extra passage discovered on the reverse side. This new text complains that someone called Ge’alyahu had taken some sparkling wine and makes the request it is replenished: “If there is any wine, send”.
Barak Sober, from Tel Aviv University, was one of the scientists involved in the find, which is reported in the journal PLoS One. “It was remarkable to discover completely new inscriptions,” he said. “This was lying in a museum for half a century and many Hebrew scholars were examining it over the years and nobody even considered the reverse side as something that was interesting or important.”
One of the more intriguing aspects was the fact that the soldier involved begins the letter, we now know, by referring to the quartermaster as “beloved”. Dr Sober said: “It’s . . . a really unique choice of words. Maybe they were colleagues, good friends. I don’t figure they were lovers.” He said that, as fascinating as it was to ponder the mysterious relationship between the soldiers, or the alcoholic tendencies of Ge’alyahu, the proof of principle was more important than the specific find itself.
“There are very few inscriptions from that time. Maybe 300,” he added. Unlike in Egypt, the climate was humid at the time so papyruses did not survive. “There is very little evidence of written words in Hebrew at that time. So each find expands the vocabulary and grammar.” This can be useful in analysing and dating biblical passages.
Even more generally, he said that the technique showed archaeologists should be more careful and think about applying the same technique, which used a digital camera to divide the colour spectrum into dozens of bands, rather than just the standard red, green and blue.
Mr Sober said: “The really sad thing is to think how many inscriptions have been overlooked because nobody saw what was there. If you go on excavations you see a huge amount of pottery being thrown away. Maybe some of it was written on.”