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]

Homo Erectus Might Have Been Really Lazy

Shipton et. al,
Shipton et. al, PLOS ONE (2018)

Of all the human species that once roamed the world, only one remains—us. Why did our primitive cousins go extinct? For Homo erectus, something like laziness may have played a role, Cosmos reports.

A new study in the journal PLOS ONE explores the role that H. erectus's lack of drive may have contributed to its extinction. The international team of researchers based their analysis on an excavation of a paleolithic site in central Saudi Arabia, finding that the tools H. erectus made were of consistently lower quality than what tool makers in later periods used. Their tools were constructed with whatever material was easiest to get, rather than what would make the best tools.

And it wasn’t because better materials weren’t available. "At the site we looked at, there was a big rocky outcrop of quality stone just a short distance away up a small hill,” study co-author Ceri Shipton of the Australian National University said in a press release. “But rather than walk up the hill, they would just use whatever bits had rolled down and were lying at the bottom.” He added, “They knew it was there, but because they had enough adequate resources, they seem to have thought, ‘why bother?’”

A row of stone tools excavated from Saffaqah
Some of the stone tools
Shipton et. al, PLOS ONE, (2018)

Meanwhile, other hominin species, like our own Homo sapiens, were happily clambering up mountains to seek out better materials for their tools. Shipton suggests that H. erectus lacked the tendency toward exploration and curiosity that has helped our species thrive.

This “laziness,” combined with changes to their environment, was likely what did in H. erectus. As the humid environment around them became drier, H. erectus seemingly didn’t adapt: They didn't invent new kinds of tools to deal with the changing landscape, nor did they relocate or travel farther afield. The research team found the tools largely near dry river beds, suggesting that H. erectus neither progressed technologically nor modified their behavior for their altered habitat.

H. erectus did manage to walk upright as we do—a first in human evolution—and it was likely the first hominin to expand their habitat beyond Africa. But the combination of these two newly identified shortcomings may have contributed to H. erectus's demise.

[h/t Cosmos]

Intriguing New Theory Might Explain the Fate of Easter Island's Civilization

iStock
iStock

Standing up to 33 feet high and weighing 81 tons, the huge moai statues of Easter Island (Rapa Nui) are the most recognizable artifacts of a thriving civilization that peaked at the middle of the last millennium. For hundreds of years, Polynesian peoples lived on the small island 2300 miles west of Chile and developed a complex culture. By the 1700s, when Europeans first arrived, much of the society was decimated.

For years, scientists thought they knew why—but fresh archaeological evidence has provided an alternative theory.

The Journal of Pacific Archaeology published a paper [PDF] this week contradicting the commonly held belief that, in the 1600s, Rapa Nui's inhabitants descended into a Lord of the Flies–like era of infighting and violence as a result of dwindling resources. According to new research, the island’s population may not have devolved into barbarism. Instead, they were collaborating on toolmaking.

University of Queensland archaeologist Dale Simpson, Jr. theorized that the raw materials used in the carving tools would reveal clues about the dynamics of the community. He and his colleagues collected 17 tools found near the moai, including axe-like toki. Using a mass spectrometer to analyze the chemical composition of the tools and samples from stone quarries on the island, Simpson and his colleagues found that most of the toki came from a single quarry.

Simpson believes this is evidence that Rapa Nui's people had not fallen into violent conflict, but were instead sharing resources—or at least allowing one another access to a favorite quarry for tool production. If the islanders were split into factions, it’s unlikely that whoever was controlling the quarry would permit rivals to make use of it.

If accurate, it would join other recent theories that are drawing a revised picture of Rapa Nui's civilization. Explorers once described a surplus of spear-like objects presumably used for combat, but modern researchers examining the tools (called mata’a) in 2015 found that their surfaces were too blunt to pierce skin and were probably used for tilling soil.

While Simpson's take on the newly discovered carving tools is an intriguing theory, researchers aren't ready to rewrite history just yet. Other scholars, including study co-author Jo Anne Van Tilburg, point out that raw materials for the tools could have been seized by force or some form of coercion.

More research will be needed to see if Simpson’s new theory holds up. If it does, it would present a new wrinkle in the storied history of Rapa Nui.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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