2,000-year-old Hidden Inscriptions on Middle Eastern Pottery May Shine Light on Jewish Revolt Against the Romans

Research is revealing hidden writing on nearly 2,000-year-old shards of pottery which were discovered in the Levant half a century ago.

Chris Rollston from the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at George Washington University has 20 of these shards—known as ostraca—in his possession and is using advanced imaging equipment to understand what is written on the ancient faded ink.

The "multipsectral" imaging technology is able to collect data from multiple wavelengths on the electromagnetic spectrum, revealing details in the pottery inscriptions that are invisible to the naked eye.

"The ink is carbon-based and was made, in part, using ancient ash. Some of the ink is really clear, but some of it is faded," Rollston said in a statement. "Multispectral imaging is capable of enhancing the ink so that one can read it more readily. During the past five to 10 years, multispectral imaging has really been front and center in the decipherment of ancient writings made with ink."

"In short, these images are making it possible to see again the words written by the original scribes some 2,000 years ago," Rollston told Newsweek. "It is absolutely fascinating to see these letters appear on the screen as the multispectral images are made."

In archaeological terms, ostraca are essentially pieces of broken pottery from ancient household items—such as pots—which were subsequently used to write down information in usually short inscriptions, almost like the "post-it notes of antiquity," according to Rollston.

People used the pottery in this way to write down receipts, memos and other notes documenting everyday information. While this may seem a little mundane to be of interest to experts today, researchers can gain valuable insights into the past when ostraca are paired with further information about the location in which they were discovered.

According to Rollston, the ostraca he is studying—which contain inscriptions in Aramaic—could help to shed light on a crucial period in Jewish history.

He believes that some of the pottery shards could contain the names and titles of Jewish soldiers who were involved in the First Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66-70) against the rule of the Roman Empire in the ancient province of Judaea, which may provide insights into naming practices of the time.

"It's difficult to know exactly when these inscriptions were written, but my sense is they were written sometime during the decade or two right prior to fall of Judaea to the Romans," he said. "These are inscriptions from this really pivotal period in what we know as ancient Judaea."

The rebellion against Roman rule eventually failed after Emperor Nero crushed the revolt—which ended with the fall of Jerusalem and the collapse of the Jewish state.

The ostraca in Rollston's possession were found at a well-known site called Machaerus—a hilltop fortress located on the eastern side of the Dead Sea in present-day Jordan. According to the Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, this fortress was the location where John the Baptist was imprisoned and executed some time between 28 and 36 A.D.

Furthermore, the famous Roman writer and naturalist named "Pliny the Elder" described Machaerus as "the most important Jewish stone fortress immediately after Jerusalem," according to Rollston.

"The ostraca consist primarily of Jewish names and at least some titles and so will provide a window into some of the people living in and around the site of Machaerus during the time prior to the fall of the site to the Romans," Rollston said. "Since the hand-writing of these ostraca is quite good, they will provide a window into the technology of writing, scribal education, and record keeping during this tumultuous period at an important Jewish military outpost."

"The ostraca provide further evidence for the use of Aramaic within Judaism at this time and in this region," he said. "Moreover, since at least one of these ostraca is Greek, they also provide a window into multilingualism at this time and in this region. Since these ostraca come from the site at which John the Baptist was martyred, the site is also able to provide a window into certain aspects of Early Christianity."

These ostraca were were excavated in 1968 but were thought to be lost until recently being rediscovered by researcher Marylinda Govaars.

This article was updated to include additional comments from Chris Rollston.

ostraca pottery
Multispectral images capture data from multiple wavelengths on the electromagnetic spectrum. These images can provide a sharper view of the faded ink writing on ostraca. Harrison Jones/GW Today