Reading Invisible Messages


September/October 2017

Trenches Israel Sherd Infrared Text


Researchers in Israel are using a technology called multispectral imaging to reveal biblical-era texts that are invisible to the naked eye. The team studied a collection of pottery sherds with ink inscriptions from the fortress at Tel Arad about 40 miles south of Jerusalem in the former kingdom of Judah. The sherds date to the period just before Judah was conquered by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C. Using a modified consumer digital SLR camera, they photographed both sides of each sherd at 10 different wavelengths of light covering the infrared and visual parts of the spectrum. The images captured traces of the deteriorated ink, helping to fill in letters and words. Writing on pottery sherds was used to send informal messages and conduct business, so it provides a glimpse of what daily life was like in ancient Judah. One sherd contained a message from the fortress’s quartermaster requesting oil, silver, and wine from a colleague at Beersheba. Says Anat Mendel-Geberovich of Tel Aviv University, “The system that we developed offers a new, highly accessible method for multispectral photography that can be used by archaeologists in the field.”