Newly deciphered letter from a Judahite fortress
“If there is any wine, send [quantity].” So reads a deciphered letter discovered in a Judahite fortress at Tel Arad in Israel’s Negev desert. Dating around 600 B.C.E., just a few years before the fall of the Kingdom of Judah to Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C.E., the Hebrew inscription records an exchange of supplies between the military outposts at Arad and nearby Beer Sheba.
The letter, written with ink on an ostracon (broken pottery piece), was deciphered by Tel Aviv University (TAU) researchers using multispectral imaging, a type of advanced digital photography. The ostracon was part of a hoard of ostraca that had been discovered in the 1960s and subsequently exhibited at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
The front side of the letter had long been deciphered, but the back side was thought to be blank—until now.
“Using multispectral imaging to acquire a set of images, Michael Cordonsky of TAU’s School of Physics noticed several marks on the ostracon’s reverse side,” said Arie Shaus, one of the authors of the study, which was published in PLOS ONE in 2017. “To our surprise, three new lines of text were revealed.”
The letter was written by Ḥananyahu, who may have been the quartermaster (the officer in charge of providing supplies) at Beer Sheba, to Elyashiv, the quartermaster at Arad.
“Your friend Ḥananyahu [hereby] sends greetings to [you] Elyashiv and to your household. I bless [you] by Yahweh,” the letter begins on the front side of the ostracon. Ḥananyahu goes on to reference a receipt he had issued and mentions sending silver and oil.
The back side of the letter, deciphered recently by the TAU researchers, continues with Ḥananyahu’s request to Elyashiv and offers assistance in return: “If there is any wine, send [quantity] … If there is anything [else] you need, send [= write to me about it].”
“Many of these inscriptions [from Arad] are addressed to Elyashiv,” explained Anat Mendel-Geberovich, one of the investigators of the study. “[The inscriptions] deal with the logistics of the outpost, such as the supply of flour, wine and oil to subordinate units.”
“[O]ur discovery stresses the importance of multispectral imaging to the documentation of ostraca,” said coauthor Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin. “It’s daunting to think how many inscriptions, invisible to the naked eye, have been disposed of during excavations.”
The post originally appeared in Bible History Daily in June, 2017
When Was the Hebrew Bible Written?
Ostraca with Hebrew inscriptions from Arad may provide clues
The world of the Bible is knowable. We can learn about the society where the ancient Israelites, and later Jesus and the Apostles, lived through the modern discoveries that provide us clues.
Biblical Archaeology Review is the guide on that fascinating journey. Here is your ticket to join us as we discover more and more about the biblical world and its people.
Each issue of Biblical Archaeology Review features lavishly illustrated and easy-to-understand articles such as:
• Fascinating finds from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament periods
• The latest scholarship by the world's greatest archaeologists and distinguished scholars
• Stunning color photographs, informative maps, and diagrams
• BAR's unique departments such as First Person and Strata
• Reviews of the latest books on biblical archaeology
The BAS Digital Library includes:
• 45+ years of Biblical Archaeology Review
• 20+ years of Bible Review online, providing critical interpretations of biblical texts
• 8 years of Archaeology Odyssey online, exploring the ancient roots of the Western world in a scholarly and entertaining way,
• The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land
• Video lectures from world-renowned experts.
• Full online access to 50+ curated Special Collections,
• Four highly acclaimed books, published in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution: Aspects of Monotheism, Feminist Approaches to the Bible, The Rise of Ancient Israel and The Search for Jesus.
The All-Access membership pass is the way to get to know the Bible through biblical archaeology.
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.