An astonishing new technology is bringing damaged and faded ancient texts to light. Scientists demonstrated its potential by scanning and translating the Khirbet Qeiyafa inscription during a news conference this morning.
Researchers at MIT have developed the Subatomic Ultra-Parsing Epigraphic Resolving Digital Uranium-Potassium Electrical Rotoscoping Chemical Oscillating Orthographic Laser computer scanner that can reconstruct any ancient inscription whether faded, damaged, or even missing completely.
Broken and faded inscriptions have confounded scholars for generations. Now, a group of graduate students under the supervision of MIT Professor Q. Rutherford “Scotty” Dufenschmirtz have created a machine able to detect microscopic chemical elements in the writing surface. The machine analyzes the variations caused by ink or chiseling marks and displays patterns on a screen, permitting people to “see” the shapes of ancient letters.
The new method is so precise, it even detects tiny particles that originated from missing/broken portions of a writing surface. By studying these patterns we can now reconstruct texts that are no longer physically present. This has tremendous implications for our understanding of the ancient past.
Epigraphers have struggled to translate the 3,000 year-old Khirbet Qeiyafa inscription ever since its discovery in 2008. Many of the ink letters have faded with time, making it nearly impossible to understand apart from a few isolated words or phrases. Several translations have been offered but none has gained significant traction in the scholarly community.
Researchers chose to demonstrate the new technology with the five-line Qeiyafa inscription. Scholars were surprised to discover that the text refers to a new gate design that is similar to the “Solomonic” gates discovered at Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer. These three cities are listed together as building projects by King Solomon in 1 Kings 9:15, though none of them are mentioned as being inhabited by Israel or Judah prior to this time.
Here is the stunning translation from this morning, revealed after three millennia:
1. Do not build the old gates of your servant.
2. Judge between four or six chambers
3. plead for the new gate as for the infant
4. it secures the poor and the widow as well as the king;
5. the slave will be a stranger from Hazor, Megiddo, or Gezer
This appears to be a message to the king or to a royal administrator, advocating a next-generation gate design. The reference to the number of chambers recalls the gate design shared by Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer, sometimes referred to as “Solomonic” based on the dating offered by Yigael Yadin. This inscription advocates for the “new” 6-chamber design in place of the earlier 4-chamber style found at Qeiyafa and elsewhere. The text also hints at a plan to utilize forced labor from the original [Canaanite?] inhabitants of these cities. The implications for our understanding of the political, socio-economic, architectural, and military culture of the 10th century B.C. southern Levant are nothing short of incredible.
The Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon. (Courtesy of the Khirbet Qeiyafa excavation)