JERUSALEM — Israel has acquired a previously unknown ancient papyrus with a Hebrew inscription from about 2,700 years ago that had long been in the possession of a resident of Montana, the country’s antiquities authority said Wednesday.
The piece of papyrus — barely bigger than a postage stamp with four lines of angular script — is one of the few from the region from the late Iron Age, archaeologists said. The Israel Antiquities Authority said it verified its age using radiocarbon dating, which matches the age of the text’s writing style.
Joe Uziel, director of the Judean Desert Scrolls unit, said the matching radiocarbon date and palaeographic style make him “very confident” that it is not a modern forgery.
The papyrus, which bears the Biblical name Ishmael, was likely looted from a cave in the Judean desert sometime in the last century, he said.
The origin and journey from the desert to Montana six decades ago and now to Jerusalem remain vague.
The antiquities authority declined to name the Montana resident, but said the man’s mother obtained the artifact during a visit to Jordan-occupied East Jerusalem in 1965 and brought it to the United States.
Numerous scroll fragments from the Dead Sea dryland that have appeared on the antiquities market in recent years, including several at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, have been found to be forgeries.
The antiquities authority showed the papyrus to the press in its labs in Jerusalem, along with two other ancient Hebrew fragments it contains — one found in a cave near the Dead Sea in the 1950s and a second stolen on the black market in 2016. for antiquities and believed to have been looted from a cave.
Eitan Klein, head of Israel’s Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit, said the Montana man’s mother may have purchased the property from Khalil Iskander Shahin — a Bethlehem-based antiquities dealer better known as “Kando,” who owned many of the originally discovered Dead Sea Scrolls – or may have received the papyrus from the curator of the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem.
How Shahin or the curator, both of whom are now deceased, obtained the papyrus remains uncertain.
The unidentified man from Montana inherited the papyrus after his mother’s death. An Israeli academic saw a photo of this previously undocumented text in the unpublished articles of a colleague and notified Klein, who tracked down the owner, the antiquities authority said.
Klein said the man was invited to Jerusalem in 2019 and the parties reached an unspecified “arrangement” whereby the papyrus was given to Israeli authorities.