Letters Dropped in 3,500 Year Old Mailbox Analyzed


Chemical composition detected by an X-ray device indicates where on Earth an ancient clay tablet originated. Clay tablets were used as media for the written word before college-ruled binder paper became popular. Previously, portions of such a tablet had to be destroyed to do a physical analysis.

A professor, Yuval Goren, in Tel Aviv University?s Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations uses a process based on X-ray-fluorescence [XRF] spectrometry to coax hidden information out of the B.C. writing tablet.

Goren compares results from the XRF tool with those from his earlier sampled pieces. Using those comparative results, he created a table of types of clay and the geographical origin of their mineral composition. The portable x-ray device can be used on several materials, including glass, ancient plaster, and even coins, all of which contain minerals or crystals. The process Goren uses has benefits over the traditional exploratory methods. Obviously, portability is a boon, but foremost is the complete preservation of the artifact, since museums are increasingly disallowing destructive methods of investigation. The Shroud of Turin is an example of wanting to preserve the cloth in total, rather than taking a snip off here, and one off there, to be analyzed.

Jewish vineyard near Jerusalem, IsraelThe professor studied a Late Bronze Age letter written in Akkadian that was in the Ophel excavations in Jerusalem. He discerned that the tablet was from clay typical of Terra Rossa soil from the Central Hill Country around Jerusalem [which is great wine growing soil according to an Israeli vintner who says "Terra rosa gives warmth, richness and the flavors of tobacco, blackberries and plums; clay makes the flavors even more extreme and volcanic soil makes for smooth and light wine."].

Because the tablet was made of native material and found near an acropolis, archaeologists surmised that it was from a king of Jerusalem. It resembles writings that are referred to as Amarna letters which were missives from officials in the Middle East to Egyptian rulers. The researchers made an educated guess that it was perhaps a copy of a letter from King Abdi-Heba, a Jesubite king to the Pharaoh of nearby Egypt.

It is hoped that Professor Goren?s on-site x-ray process will ease and speed the identification of the origin of messages from 3,500 years ago which were inscribed on clay tablets, long before the tablet known as the iPad was a twinkle in Steve Jobs? eye.