Archaeologists Uncover an Ancient Soldier’s Request: 'Send Wine'

Michael Cordonsky and Noa Evron, Tel Aviv University
Michael Cordonsky and Noa Evron, Tel Aviv University

The year was 600 BCE, and a Judahite soldier named Ḥananyahu was in search of a drink. “If there is any wine, send [some],” he wrote to a quartermaster from a fortress about a day's walk away. For 2600 years, the message was hidden. But researchers rediscovered it on the back side of an ostracon, or text written on clay using ink, that has been displayed in the Israel Museum for decades, as The New York Times reports.

Ostracon No. 16, excavated in 1965, was part of a group of 100 Hebrew inscriptions discovered in the fortress of Arad, located in the southern region of what was then the Kingdom of Judah (in what is now Israel). Many were orders for provisions addressed to Elyashiv, the Arad quartermaster.

Ḥananyahu’s wine request went undiscovered because the ink it was written with could no longer be seen with the naked eye. As detailed in a new study, researchers from Tel Aviv University used multispectral imaging (taking images at multiple different wavelengths) to reveal the invisible messages that had gone unnoticed for more than 50 years. While the front side of the ostracon had already been well studied before this, the new imaging revealed 20 more words on the front side that had never been deciphered before, including friendly greetings and a discussion of exchanging oil and silver. The back side, which was thought to be blank until now, revealed 17 new words, beginning with the request for wine. The researchers weren't able to confirm exactly how much wine Hananyahu wanted, though.

Ostraca get harder to read after they’ve been excavated, because the ink fades easily over time. The study’s authors make the case that all of these archaeological artifacts discovered up until now should be subject to this sort of imaging. “Although [multispectral] imaging can occasionally provide legibility improvement even decades after the exposure of the ostraca, undoubtedly results would have been far superior and more complete had [multispectral] imaging been done prior to the ink deterioration process,” they write.

If this technology had been available back in 1965, we might have been able to discern exactly how much wine Hananyahu wanted.

[h/t The New York Times]

Scientists Find Fossil of 150-Million-Year-Old Flesh-Eating Fish—Plus a Few of Its Prey

M. Ebert and T. Nohl
M. Ebert and T. Nohl

A fossil of an unusual piranha-like fish from the Late Jurassic period has been unearthed by scientists in southern Germany, Australian news outlet the ABC reports. Even more remarkable than the fossil’s age—150 million years old—is the fact that the limestone deposit also contains some of the fish’s victims.

Fish with chunks missing from their fins were found near the predator fish, which has been named Piranhamesodon pinnatomus. Aside from the predator’s razor-sharp teeth, though, it doesn’t look like your usual flesh-eating fish. It belonged to an extinct order of bony fish that lived at the time of the dinosaurs, and until now, scientists didn’t realize there was a species of bony fish that tore into its prey in such a way. This makes it the first flesh-eating bony fish on record, long predating the piranha. 

“Fish as we know them, bony fishes, just did not bite flesh of other fishes at that time,” Dr. Martina Kölbl-Ebert, the paleontologist who found the fish with her husband, Martin Ebert, said in a statement. “Sharks have been able to bite out chunks of flesh, but throughout history bony fishes have either fed on invertebrates or largely swallowed their prey whole. Biting chunks of flesh or fins was something that came much later."

Kölbl-Ebert, the director of the Jura Museum in Eichstätt, Germany, says she was stunned to see the bony fish’s sharp teeth, comparing it to “finding a sheep with a snarl like a wolf.” This cunning disguise made the fish a fearful predator, and scientists believe the fish may have “exploited aggressive mimicry” to ambush unsuspecting fish.

The fossil was discovered in 2016 in southern Germany, but the find has only recently been described in the journal Current Biology. It was found at a quarry where other fossils, like those of the Archaeopteryx dinosaur, have been unearthed in the past.

[h/t the ABC]

Advanced CT Scans Reveal Blood Vessels and Skin Layers in a Mummy's Hand

Jenny Romell, et al./Radiology
Jenny Romell, et al./Radiology

Mummies hold some intriguing secrets to their pasts, like the food they ate and the diseases they had when they were alive. Now scientists are using a tool originally designed for medicine to get an even deeper look at the clues mummified bodies carry with them into the present day, Gizmodo reports.

In a proof-of-concept study published in the journal Radiology, researchers from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden detail how a new-and-improved CT scanning technique can be used to visualize the interior of mummies on a microscopic level. By creating detailed X-ray images, CT scans allow doctors to see inside their patients without invasive surgery. Archaeologists have been using this technology to study delicate ancient artifacts for years, but the level of detail that can be achieved this way—especially when it comes to looking at interior soft tissue—is limited.

The upgraded version of the tech, called phase-contrast CT scanning, measures the phase shift, or the change in the position of a light wave, that occurs when X-rays pass through solid objects. The images generated this way have a higher contrast level than conventional X-rays, which means they capture more detail.

Cross-section of mummy hand.
Jenny Romell, et al./Radiology

Doctors have been using this 10-year-old technology to examine soft tissues like organs and veins in living patients, but it hadn't been used on a mummy until recently. Working with a mummified human right hand dating back to 400 BCE in Egypt, which they borrowed from the Museum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm, the researchers fired up a phase-contrast CT scanner. It produced images with a resolution of 6 to 9 microns, giving a clear picture of the different layers of skin, individual cells in the connective tissue, and the blood vessels in the nail bed—all without damaging the artifact. Previously, researchers looking to study these same tissues in mummies would have needed to use a scalpel.

As Ars Technica reports, a phase-contrast CT scanner is similar in cost to the conventional machine. The study authors hope their work will lead to phase-contrast CT scanning becoming just as common in archaeology as regular CT scanning, potentially creating new research opportunities in mummies that will be discovered in the future and even in artifacts that have already been examined.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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