The Israel Antiquities Authority said Friday that an ancient shard bearing the name of the Persian king Darius the Great that was announced this week to much fanfare was “not authentic.”
In the Wednesday announcement, the authority said the fragment found by a hiker in Israel’s Judean lowlands region was the first discovery of an inscription bearing the name of Darius I anywhere in Israel.
Darius was the father of King Ahaseurus, widely considered the biblical Achashverosh from the story of Purim, which Jews will celebrate next week. Archeological groups in Israel have a habit of announcing finds connected to Jewish festivals close to the dates of the celebrations.
The site of the find, the ancient city of Lachish, was a prosperous city and a major administrative hub 2,500 years ago. The inscription was believed to be a receipt for goods received or shipped.
The ostracon, a potsherd that was used as a writing surface, bears an Aramaic inscription that reads “Year 24 of Darius,” which would have dated it to 498 BCE.
However, on Friday, the IAA said that following the publication of the find they were approached by an expert who participated in an excavation expedition last August, who informed the authority that she had created the inscription “while demonstrating to a group of students the manner in which sherds were inscribed in ancient times.”
“She then left the sherd on the site, which led to the erroneous identification. She was questioned and said this was done unintentionally and without malice,” the statement said.
“The IAA takes full responsibility for the unfortunate event,” said Prof. Gideon Avni, the antiquities authority’s chief scientist, who noted the piece had been examined by two leading researchers.
“As an institution that strives for the scientific truth, we are committed to correcting the mistake that was made and making it known to the public,” he said.
“In terms of ethical and scientific practices, we see this as a very severe occurrence. Leaving the newly inscribed sherd on the site was careless, and led to the mistake done by the researchers and distorted the scientific truth,” Avni said.
“This once again proves that only finds discovered in controlled archaeological excavations should be considered 100% authentic. All other finds should raise questions regarding their authenticity,” he said.
Avni said the incident highlighted the problem of identifying new inscriptions on ancient finds and said the incident “will refresh proper procedures and policies with all foreign expeditions working in the country.”
Darius I reigned from 522–486 BCE, during which time the Persian Achaemenid Empire grew rapidly to encompass a large swath of the ancient world. But no written evidence of Darius’ reign has ever been found in Israel.
The hiker who found the shard, Eylon Levy, international media adviser to President Isaac Herzog, was strolling in Tel Lachish in central Israel last December when he picked up a stone that seemed to have strange markings on it. When he looked closer, he saw that it was a piece of pottery with scratches that could be writing.
Levy found the ostracon in the remains of the Persian royal administration building at Tel Lachish, which was first excavated in 1930 and has hosted hundreds of archaeologists through the decades.
“Funnily enough, [the potsherd] was right there, directly next to the wooden pergola that had been built for the visitors,” Levy told The Times of Israel last week after being informed by the IAA that it was authentic. “It was right there, right under everyone’s noses this whole time.”
Tel Lachish hosts tens of thousands of visitors each year, and a new visitor’s center is expected to open in the coming months.
Melanie Lidman contributed to this report