A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Digs & Discoveries
By DANIEL WEISS
Thursday, June 10, 2021
A team of researchers has virtually unfolded and read a letter that has remained unopened since it was mailed more than three centuries ago. Like many letters sent before the introduction of mass-produced envelopes in the early nineteenth century, this missive was intricately folded into a secure packet using a process called letterlocking. All that is visible on its exterior is the name of its intended recipient: Pierre Le Pers, a merchant in The Hague.
The researchers scanned the packet using a high-resolution, high-contrast CT scanner designed for dentistry. The device is able to clearly image substances with very different densities, such as low-density paper and high-density, iron-containing ink. The team developed an algorithm that, along with a 3-D image produced from the scanner’s data, allowed them to determine how the paper was folded. They then “unfolded” it and flattened it into a 2-D image, enabling them to read the original letter without opening and potentially damaging it.
The letter is one of a trunkful of undelivered missives held by two postmasters in The Hague. It was dated July 31, 1697, and written by Le Pers’ cousin, Jacques Sennacques, requesting a certified copy of the death notice of a man named Daniel Le Pers. Sennacques likely sought proof that Daniel Le Pers died before French inheritance laws had changed several years earlier. “Sennacques writes, ‘You didn’t answer my last letter!’” says Daniel Starza Smith, a lecturer in early modern English literature at King’s College London. “Obviously, this one’s gone unanswered, too. The poor guy probably ended up paying more inheritance tax than he needed to.”
To see an animation of the unfolding of a seventeenth-century letter, click below. (The animation is courtesy the Unlocking History Research Group archive.)
By LING XIN
Thursday, June 10, 2021
An array of 2,000-year-old bronze mirrors unearthed in a cemetery in the suburbs of Xi’an, China, has shed new light on funeral customs and daily life during the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 9). Among the 87 circular mirrors, which vary in size from three to eight inches in diameter, several can still reflect images. “They clearly show petals of flowers, or the brand name on your drink,” says lead researcher Yingpei Zhu from Shaanxi Academy of Archaeology. On the back of each mirror is a central knob surrounded by decorative images such as dragons and stars. According to Zhu, these mirrors belonged to ordinary citizens. In most cases, the mirror was placed near the head or chest of the tomb owner. In one well-preserved tomb, four mirrors were placed in a stack, indicating the owner might have been wealthy—or just a devoted mirror aficionado.
By JARRETT A. LOBELL
Thursday, June 10, 2021
There are many extremely challenging places to dig. In Luxor, Egypt, site of a newly discovered 18th Dynasty city (See “Lost Egyptian City”), temperatures often rise above 100°F. At the Yana Rhinoceros Horn site in remote northeastern Siberia, where scientists have found 31,000-year-old baby teeth belonging to a previously unknown human population, it can be as cold as −46°F. Some archaeologists regularly dive to the depths of the ocean. In the field, they can face venomous scorpions and active volcanoes. And there are the dangers of the modern world—the “Big Dig” was conducted in downtown Boston as a new highway was built overhead, and the recent coup in Myanmar has put archaeological work on hold.
But there are few places where more challenges collide than the Judean Desert in Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank, home of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scrolls, the first of which were found in 1947 by a Bedouin shepherd in the Qumran Caves at the north end of the Dead Sea, contain the earliest known copies of biblical books, along with other Jewish religious writings, personal letters, and administrative documents dating from the mid-third century B.C. to the early second century A.D. For the past five years, Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) archaeologists have investigated 580 known caves in the cliffs of the Judean Desert, where the logistical difficulties are unique, explains archaeologist and deputy director of the IAA Theft Prevention Unit, Eitan Klein. “Most of the caves can only be accessed using ropes due to their location in the middle of very steep cliffs,” he says. “The area is very remote and there are communication problems that can cause safety issues.” Compounding these obstacles is the fact that some of the caves are in the occupied territories. According to international law, removing artifacts from these sites is illegal, which raises political and ethical concerns. Looters also pose an ever-present threat.
Located 260 feet below the top of a steep cliff, Cave 8 is in one of the Hever Valley’s most remote locations and has proved especially difficult for archaeologists to explore. The cave was first excavated in the 1950s and 1960s, when archaeologists discovered the skeletons of 40 adults and children, the remains of rebels who had fled to the area at the end of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, a Jewish rebellion against Roman rule from A.D. 132 to 135. During the recent campaign, the team unearthed coins bearing Jewish symbols, as well as spearheads and arrowheads, textiles, sandals, and lice combs belonging to the refugees in the cave. They also recovered 70 small pieces of parchment and a few scraps of papyrus, 30 of which of have writing on them, representing the first fragments of any biblical text to be uncovered in 60 years. “They took their most important belongings with them, including the scroll,” says Klein, “and they probably read those prophecies in the last hours of their lives to encourage their souls.”
Except for the name of God, which appears in Paleo-Hebrew, the late first-century B.C. text is written in Greek and consists of missing fragments from the Greek Minor Prophets Scroll, which was found in Cave 8 in the 1950s. Some fragments are blank, while others contain 11 lines from the Book of Zechariah as well as lines from the Book of Nahum. “The fact that the scroll is in Greek tells us that at least some of the rebels were fluent and comfortable using Greek for holy texts,” says Oren Ableman, curator-researcher in the Dead Sea Scrolls unit of the IAA. “It was a real privilege to be the first person in two thousand years to read some parts of this scroll and a joy to find surprising text in the fragments.”
And therein lies another challenge. The Dead Sea Scrolls were written in multiple different languages over hundreds of years and, in the case of the biblical texts, copied by multiple scribes many times over. Sometimes more than one scribe worked on the same scroll. And sometimes mistakes were made by scribes copying the texts, creating even more difficulties. “For example, it was baffling to find the word ‘streets’ where all other manuscripts have the word ‘gates,’” Ableman says. “At first, I thought I might have made a mistake. However, eventually I concluded that the mistake wasn’t mine, but rather was made by a scribe in antiquity.”
By BENJAMIN LEONARD
Thursday, June 10, 2021
Farmers in Peru’s Virú Province accidentally unearthed a temple complex dating to between 1000 and 200 B.C. in an earthen mound. Although the farmers’ heavy machinery destroyed much of the site, a vibrant, multicolored mural was preserved on a wall of one of the complex’s adobe buildings. The compound was built by people of the Cupisnique culture who lived along Peru’s northern coast for some 2,000 years. At the mural’s center is a figure holding a ceremonial knife in one of its many limbs. The figure, which also appears on Cupisnique stone vessels, has been interpreted as a spiderlike god. According to archaeologist Régulo Franco Jordán of the Wiese Foundation, this is the first known depiction of the supernatural being on a Cupisnique mural. The Cupisnique people relied on seasonal rains for their survival, and Jordán suggests that the temple’s location in a valley near the right bank of the Virú River connects the site to the worship of water deities, likely including the mysterious spider figure.
Ancient Australian multi-tools, Africa’s oldest house, Neanderthal hygiene, and Viking warrior bedding
All wonders great and small