Scientists discover ancient Hebrew curses inside Bronze Age lead tablet
Academic articles are usually only read by a vanishingly small number of people, but a paper published in mid-May of this year in the journal Heritage Science has already become one of the world's most-read scientific papers, with 36,000 views. It is the work of an international team of scientists, including some Czechs, who deciphered a text hidden inside a Bronze Age lead tablet in Israel – and found that it contained proto-Hebraic curses.
In the 1980s, Israeli archaeologist Adam Zertal came across two altars on Mount Ebal in Samaria on the West Bank of the river Jordan. He found that one of the altars dated back to the Late Bronze Age – he dated it to the mid-13th century BC – and additionally discovered that under this altar was a lead tablet that had presumably originally been part of one of the altars, but had been buried under piles of stones for the past 3,200 years.
He spent the better part of a decade studying this archaeological find, but never discovered what was written inside the tablet – or even knew that there was anything to find. But recently, an international team decided to re-examine his excavations, and found that the tablet contained inscriptions hidden inside it.
Daniel Vavřík from the Academy of Sciences’s Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics, one of the Czech academics who contributed to the research, explained to Czech Radio how it was likely created:
"In principle, it was a text written on some kind of material that would last a long time, often it was lead, but it could also be silver. And since it was someone who could write, usually that means it was a priest or some such person who wrote it. He wrote the text on an open sheet that was then closed so that it couldn’t be read from the outside. The sheet was folded once or several times, and the text was hidden inside."
The tablet – which, by the way, is tiny: only two centimetres long and wide and less than half a centimetre thick – consists of one folded rectangle of lead foil. Previously, such finds were opened mechanically, but the artefact would often be irreversibly damaged in the process. What made this research special was that the team, for the first time ever, managed to decipher the text without using any mechanical intervention. Instead, the team deciphered the text using X-ray tomography.
However, as Daniel Vavřík explains, it took many long hours of examining the tomographic images before they found anything:
"A tomographic image contains 64,000 shades of grey. The human eye can see only 500 shades of grey. So you have to look through the data very carefully. When I saw the data for the first time, I thought there was nothing there. But I went through it again and again, playing with the composition, size, rotation, orientation, and finally I saw three possible characters. So I sent the pictures to some epigraphers who know Hebrew, and they confirmed that there are characters there, and as I processed the data for them better and better, they could see more and more characters, until finally they saw dozens."
The script was ultimately identified as Proto-Hebrew, which can be dated to around 1400-1200 BC, i.e. the Late Bronze Age, making it the oldest known Hebrew text by two centuries. And even more interestingly, once it was deciphered, the inscriptions were found to be ancient curses. "You are cursed by the god YWH (Yahweh)," reads one of them. Says Daniel Vavřík:
"Entire cities or simply lone individuals could be cursed. In this case, it was apparently just one person."