A rare piece of papyrus – perhaps part of an ancient letter – has been returned to Israel after six decades in much colder climes. Lost for close to three millennia in total, the scrap somehow found its way to Montana – before a chance glimpse of a photograph led to its discovery and retrieval. There are only three known papyri from this period in the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) Dead Sea Scrolls collection.
“First Temple-period documents written on organic materials – such as this papyrus – have scarcely survived,” explained Joe Uziel, Director of the IAA Judean Desert Scrolls Unit, in a statement sent to IFLScience. “Whilst we have thousands of scroll fragments dating from the Second Temple period, we have only three documents, including this newly found one, from the First Temple period.”
The papyrus’s story begins in the seventh to sixth century BCE, according to radiocarbon dating done by the IAA – a result which gels nicely with estimates based off the letter forms of the note. That places it squarely in the middle of the First Temple Period – an era named for the Temple of Solomon, which stood in Jerusalem from the 10th century BCE according to Jewish lore until its destruction in 586 BCE.
But it’s not a grand Temple document that the papyrus records. Hardly bigger than a postage stamp, the scrap is just four torn lines long – and the first words hint that it was once a letter containing instructions, telling the recipient: “To Ishmael send…”
“Ishmael… was a common name in the Biblical period, meaning ‘God will hear’,” said Shmuel Ahituv, Professor Emeritus of Ben Gurion University’s department of Bible Studies, Archeology and the Ancient Near East. “The present document probably certified a dispatchment either to, or from, Yishmael.”
The document was preserved for so long thanks to the dry climate of the Judean desert, where all three of the First Temple-era relics were originally found. It stayed there for a couple thousand years, until at some point – likely within the last century, Uziel said, it was looted and sold to local antiquities dealers.
It was in the mid-1960s when the artifact made its way across the Atlantic to the Big Sky country of Montana. At the time, the area we now know as Jerusalem was under Jordanian occupation, and the sale and export of antiquities was highly restricted and required special permits from government officials – permissions it’s not clear the woman who brought the papyrus home as a souvenir in 1965 ever got.
Nevertheless, she somehow got it home, where she displayed the framed scroll fragment on her wall. And there it may have remained, had Ahituv not noticed a photograph of the relic among the notes of a deceased colleague.
And so began a joint mission between Ahituv and the IAA Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit: to find this mysterious document, and get it back to Israel.
“Repatriating this rare document is part of an extensive process led by the Israel Antiquities Authority, aiming… to prevent the illegal sale of the ancient scrolls that were plundered from the Judean Desert in the past,” said Director of the Israel Antiquities Authority Eli Eskosido. “And on the other hand, [we aim] to prevent further plundering of the cultural heritage finds extant in the desert today.”
Once the new home of the papyrus fragment had been located – at the home of the 1960s buyer’s son, now – the objective was to convince the owner to give it over to Israeli authorities. After an invitation to the Israel Antiquities Authority Judean Desert Scroll Department’s Conservation Laboratory in Jerusalem, he was convinced that the rare document would be best preserved by the antiquities experts at the lab.
“The Israel Antiquities Authority… continues to surprise us with their success in locating lost archaeological treasures,” said Hili Tropper, Israel’s Minister of Culture and Sport. “The Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority acts vigorously to uproot the phenomenon of antiquity looting, with the aim that the entire population can appreciate the national heritage and deepen our roots.”
Results of investigations into the artifact will be presented next Thursday at the Israel Antiquities Authority’s First Judean Desert Conference, at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem. For now, the scrap joins a wealth of treasures uncovered in the area in recent years, some of which have already reshaped the way we think about the development of written language and communication.
“Towards the end of the First Temple period, writing was widespread,” Uziel said. “This is evident from many finds, including groups of ostraca (documents written on pottery sherds) and stamp seals with writing, that have been discovered in many ancient urban settlements, including in the royal capital of Jerusalem.”
“Each new document sheds further light on the literacy and the administration of the First Temple period,” he added.