Multispectral Imaging reveals new text. (Credit: Tel Aviv University/PLOS.org).

He reveals mysteries from the darkness And brings the deep darkness into light. – Job 12:22 (ESV)

“Hidden” text that was unseen by the human eye has been revealed on a small pottery shard on display for the past 50 years at The Israel Museum. The use of a household camera with a multispectral imaging technique has captured the image of Hebrew text on the back side that they believed was “blank”.

The shard was originally recovered in 1965 at the desert fortress of Arad, west of the Dead Sea, by Prof. Yohanan Aharoni and has been dated to about 600 BC (just before Judah’s destruction by Nebuchadnezzar). Once artifacts are unearthed, ink on clay rapidly fades. It is possible that many clay samples were discarded, thought to be “blank.”

The Kingdom of Judah: Main towns in Judah and sites with major ostraca findings. (Image credit: Faigenbaum-Golovin et al, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0178400).

Arad was a military outpost, a fortress at the southern border of the kingdom of Judah, and was populated by 20 to 30 soldiers,” said team member Dr. Anat Mendel-Geberovich, of Tel Aviv University.

The front side had been thoroughly studied had been previously translated.
The visible text contains a list of supplies and orders from military quartermasters. It discusses money transfers and opens with a blessing to Yahweh. Dr. Mendel-Geberovich states, “Many of these inscriptions are addressed to Elyashiv, the quartermaster of the fortress. They deal with the logistics of the outpost, such as the supply of flour, wine, and oil to subordinate units.”

The new photography technique restored three new lines of text on the back as well as some additional text on the front side, that can now be studied. “The content of the reverse side implies it is a continuation of the text on the front side,” added Tel Aviv University researcher Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin.

Renewed reading of Arad 16 recto (left) and the first reading of Arad 16 verso (right). (Image credit: Faigenbaum-Golovin et al, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0178400).

“The new reading of the recto (front side) of Arad 16 has added about 45 new characters. There are almost 20 words on the recto with a changed reading,” the scientists said. Details of the text are published in the team’s report in the journal PLoS ONE.

The recto (front side) of Arad ostracon No. 16.
(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 (editio princeps) [2]. Hollow shapes represent conjectured characters. (Image credit: Faigenbaum-Golovin et al, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0178400).

The verso (back side) of Arad ostracon No. 16.
(A) color (RGB) image; (B) MS image corresponding to 890 nm; (C) manual drawing (facsimile) of the proposed reading. Hollow shapes represent conjectured characters. (Image credit: Faigenbaum-Golovin et al, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0178400).

The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law. – Deuteronomy 29:29 (ESV)

The new imaging process used by the research team did not require super expensive equipment. In fact they used a Canon SLR 450D digital camera. The shard was photographed in a dark room with different lenses and filters; which included a Tamron SP AF90mm F/2.8 Di 1:1 Macro lens. Also of note is that the internal Canon IR cut filter was removed by Lifepixel and replaced with transparent glass having the same refractive index, as noted in the researchers report. Tel Aviv’s unorthodox “home-made” version cost well under $5,000. Whereas similar equipment from most camera institutions would have cost around $100,000.

As noted in a recent article, The Times of Israel interviewed team member and applied mathematician Arie Shaus, whose doctorate deals with the mathematical and statistical techniques used for picture processing. Shaus, feels that the modified MS imaging camera used is a game changer for archaeological studies.

“It means that every university or archaeological dig can build the camera,” Shaus said, and potentially discover previously overlooked inscriptions.

Shaus said the team will continue to photograph other ostraca from this First Temple period; he estimates that the project will be finished by the end of the year.

No time to grieve all the shards that have been discarded over the years. But instead researchers will focus on photographing what is already among the collections to see if there is additional text. A simple note from one quartermaster to another requesting supplies gives a powerful glimpse into many things.

“While it’s true that many of the ostraca deal with wine or other supplies, there are findings that go well beyond that in terms of their importance. The trove teaches about grammar, vocabulary, on the form and development of the writing, spelling, and also about the Hebrew used at that time,” said Ronit Gadish, the scientific secretary of the Academy of the Hebrew Language.

“But they also shed light on the sociology and economy of the era. Through ordered supplies, we know what foodstuffs could be found at that time in Israel and the quantities requested,” noted Gadish.

“Every letter, every chance to decipher anything improves our understanding of the text and the history, the economy, and the language of this period,” Gadish added. “It’s amazing because it can suddenly be so easily seen. This is a very important development.”

New methods for how researchers handle and approach the pottery found during archaeological digs will result from this discovery. Shaus suggests that “Maybe they should just image everything. Using low-cost equipment like the camera in this discovery would allow each excavation to have one… or at least create a filtering system whereby only samples of pottery which could have been used for writing, are saved and scanned. 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.”

This technology will also certainly provide more clues about how the histories of the various nations around Israel relate to one another. Will the standard view of the timeline receive more support or will troubling anomalies continue to mount?

Here at Patterns of Evidence we will keep our eyes open for more scans as this new process is shared amongst researchers. Although it seems as if we have found so much, exciting finds such as this remind us that we only recovered a very small portion of the evidence that lays in the darkness. Keep Thinking!