Reading the zip codes of 3,500-year-old letters

Aug 05, 2010
This is the x-ray spectrometer used to determine the chemical composition of ancient tablets. Credit: AFTAU

Unfortunately, when ancient kings sent letters to each other, their post offices didn't record the sender's return address. It takes quite a bit of super-sleuthing by today's archaeologists to determine the geographical origin of this correspondence -- which can reveal a great deal about ancient rulers and civilizations.

Now, by adapting an off-the-shelf portable x-ray lab tool that analyzes the composition of chemicals, Prof. Yuval Goren of Tel Aviv University's Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations can reveal hidden information about a tablet's composition without damaging the precious ancient find itself. These reveal the soil and clay composition of a tablet or artefact, to help determine its precise origin.

But Prof. Goren's process, based on (XRF) spectrometry, can go much further. Over the years, he has collected extensive data through physical "destructive" sampling of artefacts. By comparing this data to readouts produced by the XRF device, he's built a table of results so that he can now scan a tablet -- touching the surface of it gently with the machine ― and immediately assess its clay type and the geographical origin of its minerals.

The tool, he says, can also be applied to coins, ancient plasters, and glass, and can be used on site or in a lab. He plans to make this information widely available to other archaeological researchers.

Preserving artefacts for the future

Prof. Goren's field intersects the worlds of geology, mineralogy and ancient technology as he tries to understand where ancient tablets and pots are made, based on the crystals and minerals found in the materials of these artefacts.

Traditionally archaeological scientists have had to take small samples of an artefact -- a chip or a slice -- in order to analyze its soil and clay composition. But as more and more museums and sites ban these destructive means of investigating archaeological finds, Prof. Goren's new tool may help save archaeological structures while solving some of its deepest mysteries.

"It's become a big ethical question," says Prof. Goren. "Many museums will not allow any more physical sampling of artefacts, and it's especially problematic for small tablet fragments and stamps which cannot be broken in the process. I had to find another way to know what these were made of."

Prof. Yuval Goren demonstrates the portable x-ray device on an ancient tablet. Credit: AFTAU

Records from a Jesubite King

In his recent study published in the Israel Exploration Journal, Prof. Goren and his colleagues investigated a Late Bronze Age letter written in the Akkadian language and found among the Ophel excavations in Jerusalem.

Its style suggests that it is a rough and contemporary tablet of the Amarna letters -- letters written from officials throughout the Middle East to the Pharaohs in Egypt around 3,500 years ago, pre-biblical times. Using his device, Prof. Goren was able to determine that the letter is made from raw material typical to the Terra Rossa soils of the Central Hill Country around Jerusalem. This determination helped to confirm both the origin of the letter and possibly its sender.

"We believe this is a local product written by Jerusalem scribes, made of locally available soil. Found close to an acropolis, it is also likely that the letter fragment does in fact come from a king of Jerusalem," the researchers reported, adding that it may well be an archival copy of a letter from King Abdi-Heba, a Jesubite king in Jerusalem, to the Pharaoh in nearby Egypt.

Prof. Goren is also an expert at uncovering archaeological forgeries and has worked on the alleged ossuary, or bone box, of Jesus' brother James.

Explore further: Seeing dinosaur feathers in a new light

Related Stories

Oldest written document ever found in Jerusalem

Jul 12, 2010

A tiny clay fragment - dating from the 14th century B.C.E. - that was found in excavations outside Jerusalem's Old City walls contains the oldest written document ever found in Jerusalem, say researchers at ...

Digging biblical history, or the end of the world

Nov 20, 2007

Some come to dig the Tel Aviv University-directed archeological site at Tel Megiddo because they are enchanted by ancient stories of King Solomon. Others come because they believe in a New Testament prophecy ...

Ancient handle with Hebrew text found in Jerusalem

May 20, 2009

(AP) -- Archaeologists digging on Jerusalem's Mount of Olives have discovered a nearly 3,000-year-old jar handle bearing ancient Hebrew script, a find significantly older than most inscribed artifacts unearthed ...

Recommended for you

Seeing dinosaur feathers in a new light

3 hours ago

Why were dinosaurs covered in a cloak of feathers long before the early bird species Archaeopteryx first attempted flight? Researchers from the University of Bonn and the University of Göttingen attempt ...

Mexico archaeologists explore Teotihuacan tunnel (Update)

19 hours ago

A yearslong exploration of a tunnel sealed almost 2,000 years ago at the ancient city of Teotihuacan yielded thousands of relics and the discovery of three chambers that could hold more important finds, Mexican ...

Peruvian dig reveals sacrificial mystery

Oct 29, 2014

Tulane University physical anthropologist John Verano has spent summers in Peru for the last 30 years, digging for ancient bones and solving their secrets. But his most recent work focuses on a unique archeological ...

Phaistos Disk may be prayer to mother goddess

Oct 27, 2014

Ancient writing systems and their meanings absorb scientists who dedicate years of work to deciphering and sorting through arguments to determine the true meaning and purpose of writings. The latest news ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.