A hiker in Israel’s Judean lowlands region recently discovered a 2,500-year-old pottery shard inscribed with the name of the Persian king Darius the Great, the father of king Ahasuerus. It is the first discovery of an inscription bearing the name of Darius I anywhere in Israel, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced on Wednesday.
King Ahaseurus is widely considered the biblical Achashverosh from the story of Purim, which Jews will celebrate next week. 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 is 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,” dating it to 498 BCE. 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, until now.
Editors Note: The Israel Antiquities Authority later issued a statement saying that the shard was not authentic and had been created by an expert demonstrating inscription techniques to her students. The Authority apologized and took responsibility.
The hiker, 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.
“Suddenly my heart stopped,” Levy told The Times of Israel this week.
“Immediately when I picked it up, I thought it was an elaborate prank. I thought, this can’t be real, this doesn’t really happen to people when they’re just hiking,” he said. Levy said he even looked around to see if there were cameras and he was unknowingly being punked by a reality TV show.
But when he looked closer, he saw that the inscription continued beneath a packed dirt crust, which seemed to be too elaborate for a fake.
“I immediately reported it to the Israel Antiquities Authority,” Levy said. “Their reaction was that it looks genuine and very interesting.”
The IAA’s Saar Ganor, who oversees the excavations at Tel Lachish, came to meet Levy at the President’s Residence and took the potsherd for further testing.
“I was still a little suspicious. I thought it was too good to be true,” said Levy. “It seemed so serendipitous, such an extraordinary find right under everyone’s noses.”
But a few weeks later, after the IAA had put the potsherd through multiple scans and laboratory tests, including at the Dead Sea Scrolls Lab, Ganor called Levy and told him the potsherd was believed to be authentic.
An article about the inscribed potsherd will be published in the Israel Antiquities Authority journal ‘Atiqot, vol. 110: The Ancient Written Wor(l)d.
Would you like a receipt with that?
Darius I’s son, King Hishrash (Ahasuerus, also known as Xerxes in Greek), followed his father’s lead in expanding the empire, ruling most of the ancient world “from India to Cush [modern-day Ethiopia],” as is described in the Book of Esther.
The Book of Esther, which Jews read on the holiday of Purim, tells the story of Achashverosh’s court when the Jews of Persia were threatened by the destructive plans of Achashverosh’s chief adviser, Haman. Queen Esther and her uncle Mordechai use her influence with the king to thwart Haman’s plans and save the Jewish people, and the holiday is often celebrated today with elaborate costumes and heavy drinking.
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. Archaeologists believe the ostracon may have been an administrative note, like a receipt for goods or for their shipment.
Lachish was in the province of Edom/Idumea within what is described in Ezra 4:20 and Deuteronomy 1:7 as the “Beyond the River” province of the ancient Persian Empire. The area paid taxes, sometimes in the form of agricultural produce, to the Persian administrative system.
“The British Archaeological Expedition that carried out excavations at Tel Lachish in the 1930s uncovered an elaborate administrative building from the Persian period, built on top of the podium of the destroyed palace-fort of the Judean kings,” explained epigrapher Dr. Haggai Misgav of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, one of the primary researchers at Lachish. The administration building had elaborate halls and courtyards with a majestic columned portico entrance.
Lachish was a flourishing Canaanite city in the second millennium BCE, and the second most important city in the Kingdom of Judah after Jerusalem. The city figures prominently in the Old and New Testaments as the sites of battles with Joshua, Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar. In the year 701 BCE, the Assyrian army built a massive ramp to breach and capture the city, which visitors can still hike up today. The army had to move around 3 million stones to build the ramp, experts believe.
“Today, only the pillar bases remain in place on the mound as the British expedition dismantled the remains of the elaborate Persian building in order to excavate the underlying Judean palace,” Misgav added.
“Funnily enough, [the potsherd] was right there, directly next the wooden pergola that had been built for the visitors,” said Levy. “It was right there, right under everyone’s noses this whole time.” Small items can sometimes get washed up by rain and suddenly unearthed even in the most thoroughly excavated sites.
Tel Lachish hosts tens of thousands of visitors each year, and a new visitor’s center is expected to open in the coming months.
This isn’t the first time Lachish has hosted the discovery of an important text. In 2015, researchers announced the discovery of some of the earliest known written Semitic letters, dating from around 1130 BCE. “The Canaanite city of Lachish was one of the most important centers in the world for the use of the alphabet,” and preserved the culture of using an egalitarian writing system, Prof. Yosef Garfinkel of Hebrew University said at the time.
Last year, archaeologists announced they had discovered an even older inscription, one of the earliest Canaanite sentences ever found, on a Middle Bronze Age ivory lice comb from around 17th century BCE.
Evidence littered all around us
Levy said whenever he hikes at archaeological sites around Israel, he loves picking up things from the ground on the chance that it could be broken bits of pottery or ancient detritus. But he’s never had the experience of finding anything unique, until now.
Levy said he and his hiking friend, Yakov Ashkenazi, have a bit of a friendly rivalry since Levy was the one who found the potsherd. But Levy said that without Ashkenazi, he never would have been hiking at Lachish in the first place.
“It was incredibly exciting to be part of this kind of discovery,” Ashkenazi told the IAA. “It’s something really special, especially for someone who loves history as much as I do.”
For Purim, Levy said he had considered dressing as Indiana Jones, but has decided to dress up as Darius I instead. Dressing as an ostracon would be too difficult, he conceded. He’s also looking forward to getting back out on the trail with Ashkenazi and exploring other archaeological sites.
“The evidence for ancient Jewish history and the history of world civilizations is littered all around us, not just in sites yet to be explored but also right on the ground in places that people tour all the time,” Levy said.
“That’s part of the enjoyment of visiting an archaeological site — you might find the next big discovery. Next time I go, I will definitely be a lot more conscious about what is around my feet, and keep my eyes firmly on the ground.”
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