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Israeli Scientists Use a New Technique to Unveil Lost Letters

June 19 2017

For archaeologists studying the ancient Near East, ostraca—potsherds on which notes and letters were written in ink—provide a crucial source of information. While ostraca are far more durable than papyrus, scholars have long been aware that the ink on clay can fade easily. A group of applied mathematicians, physicists, and archaeologists at Tel Aviv University have devised a form of multispectral imaging that can detect such faded writing. And unlike similar techniques already in use, this one does not require advanced or expensive equipment. Amanda Borschel-Dan writes:

A corpus of 91 ostraca written on the eve of the kingdom of Judah’s destruction by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE was unearthed at Tel Arad, west of the Dead Sea, in the 1960s. . . . Containing lists of supplies and orders from military quartermasters, the shards were of immeasurable value to the study of the Hebrew language and the sociology and economy of the time period.

Now, though, with the discovery of previously invisible words and even sentences on the “blank” reverse side of one of the first shards to be examined with the new technology, the pieces have become still more important. . . . [M]any shards previously thought of as blank have been summarily disposed of at digs or during artifact recording. . . .

[The decoded ostracon] is a letter sent to Elyashiv, [thought to be the quartermaster of a military fortress], from one Ḥananyahu—the team speculates he was a quartermaster in Beersheba—and discusses the transfer of silver. [The] newly discovered text shows that Ḥananyahu also asked for wine.

Read more at Times of Israel

More about: Ancient Israel, Archaeology, History & Ideas, Israeli technology

A New Book Tries, and Fails, to Understand the West Bank’s Jews

Aug. 22 2017

In City on a Hilltop, Sara Yael Hirschhorn seeks to explain Israel’s settler movement, rejecting the common misconception that its members are fanatics uniformly motivated by religious zeal and ferocious nationalism. Nonetheless, writes Evelyn Gordon, Hirschhorn fails to look past her own political assumptions:

[R]eaders emerge from [the book] with no clear understanding of what drives the settlement movement. This isn’t surprising, since Hirschhorn admits in her conclusion that she herself has no such understanding: “After discussions with dozens of Jewish-American immigrants in the occupied territories, I still struggled to understand how they saw themselves and their role within the Israeli settlement enterprise.”

Consequently, she’s produced an entire book about settlers that virtually ignores the twin beliefs at the heart of their enterprise: Israel has a right to be in the territories, whether based on religious and historical ties, international law, or both, and Israel has a need to be there, whether for religious and historical reasons, security ones, or both.

This glaring omission seems to stem largely from her inability to take such beliefs seriously. In one noteworthy example, she writes, “While their religio-historical claims to the Gush Etzion area are highly contentious, many settler activists over the past 50 years have asserted Biblical ties to the region.” But what exactly is contentious about that assertion? No serious person would deny that many significant events in the Bible took place in what is now called the West Bank. . . . One could argue that this doesn’t justify Jews living there today, but if you can’t acknowledge that this area is Judaism’s religious and historical heartland, and that many Jews consequently believe that giving it up would tear the heart out of the Jewish state, you can’t understand a major driver of the settlement movement.

Similarly, Hirschhorn pays scant attention to the security arguments for retaining the West Bank, and none at all to Israel’s strong claim to the area under international law. . . . The result is that while most of her settlers don’t come off as fanatics, they often do come off as simpletons—people who became “colonialist occupiers” for no apparent reason, without ever really thinking about it.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Israel & Zionism, Settlements, West Bank