Photo Credit: Yoli Scwhartz, Israel Antiquities Authority
Dr. Joe Uziel (R) and Dr. Eitan Klein of the Israel Antiquities Authority examining the rare papyrus.

A joint intelligence operation of the Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority, and Professor Shmuel Ahituv, recipient of the Israel Prize for Biblical Studies, with the help of the Ministry of Culture and Sport and the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, repatriated a First Temple-era document dated to the late seventh or early sixth century BCE. The document is written in ancient Hebrew script on papyrus and was probably discovered in the Judean Desert caves.

The extremely rare document comprises four torn lines that begin with the words “To Ishmael send…,” hinting that it’s a fragment of a letter containing instructions to the recipient named Ishmael. Based on the writing, the researchers propose to date the Ishmael Papyrus to the seventh to sixth centuries BCE, joining only two other documents from this period in the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Dead Sea Scrolls collection. All three papyri come from the Judean Desert, where the dry climate enables the preservation of ancient documents.

The Ishmael Papyrus, a rare document from the First Temple era. / Shai Halevi, Israel Antiquities Authori

The story began when Ancient Hebrew Script scholar Dr. Ada Yardeni passed away in June 2018, and Prof. Shmuel Ahituv was asked to complete the publication of a document she was working on. Ahituv was surprised to encounter the photograph of a rare and until then unknown document from the First Temple era, together with Yardeni’s preliminary deciphered text. This led to a joint campaign by Ahituv and the Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit of the IAA to locate the whereabouts of the original document.

The intelligence mission succeeded, and the person who owned the papyrus, a resident of Montana, USA, was located. He explained that the papyrus was given to his mother when she visited Jerusalem in 1965 by Joseph Sa‘ad, Curator of the Rockefeller Museum, and Halil Iskander Kandu, a well-known antiquities dealer from Bethlehem, who many years ago sold thousands of Dead Sea scroll fragments. Back home in Montana, his mother hung the framed scroll fragment on the wall.

To convince the owner to give back the fragile document to the Israeli authorities who would conserve it properly in climate-controlled conditions, he was invited to visit the IAA Judean Desert Scroll Department’s Conservation Laboratory in Jerusalem. After the visit, the owner was convinced that the best conditions to conserve and research the rare document existed in this lab, and generously gave it to the IAA.

The Dead Sea Scrolls Unit conserved the papyrus and documented it with the modern multispectral system used to monitor the state of the scrolls.

Conservation of the papyrus in the Israel Antiquities Authority Scrolls Conservation Laboratory. / Shai Halevi, Israel Antiquities Authority

A small sample of the papyrus was radiometrically dated in the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, to confirm that the document was genuine. The sample provided a date similar to that determined by the paleographic evaluation (based on the letter forms), thus consolidating the date near the end of the First Temple era. The document was researched by Prof. Ahituv, and his findings will be presented next Thursday at the IAA’s First Judean Desert Conference at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem.

According to Professor Ahituv, “the name Ishmael mentioned in the document was common in the Biblical period, meaning ‘God will hear.’ It first appears in the Bible as the name of the son of Abraham and Hagar, and it is subsequently the first name of several individuals in the Bible, including Ishmael ben Netanyahu, who murdered the governor of Judea Gedaliah ben Ahikam (whose death we mourn on Gedaliah’s fast the day after Rosh Hashanah – DI). It also appears as the name of officials on paleographic finds such as bullae (clay stamp seals) used for sealing royal documents in the administration of the Kingdom of Judah, such as the bulla reading, ‘To Ishmael, son of the king.’ The present document probably certified a dispatch either to or from Ishmael.”

“Writing was widespread toward the end of the First Temple era,” says Dr. Joe Uziel, Director of the IAA Judean Desert Scrolls Unit. “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. However, First Temple-era documents written on organic materials—such as this papyrus—have scarcely survived. While we have thousands of scroll fragments dating from the Second Temple period, we have only three documents, including this newly discovered one, from the First Temple period. Each new document sheds more light on the literacy and the administration during the First Temple era.”

The Israel Antiquities Authority is carrying out archaeological surveys to locate important finds in the Judean Desert. / Eitan Klein, Israel Antiquities Authority

According to Dr. Eitan Klein, deputy director of the Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit of the IAA, “returning this document to Israel is part of ongoing efforts undertaken by the Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority to protect and preserve the cultural heritage of the State of Israel, a heritage that belongs to all its citizens, which are playing a role in the story of the historical heritage of the country and its inhabitants over the centuries. The legal and worthy place for this artifact is in the Israel Antiquities Authority Dead Sea Scrolls Unit, and we are making every effort to retrieve additional fragmentary scrolls located abroad and bring them to Israel.”

The story behind this document will be presented for the first time at the First Judean Desert Conference at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem next week, Thursday, September 15. In the course of the conference––which is open to the public and free of charge––the research projects carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority in the Judean Desert Project in recent years and the important finds will be presented.

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