Archaeological Research

Silver Amulet Unfolded

Danish and German researchers reveal secret text with new technology

4. 1. 2016 | A silver amulet from the early islamic period in the Middle East has been 'unfolded' digitally with the help of computer tomography. Researchers from Aarhus University, headed by Prof. Rubina Raja, and Bochum University managed to study the text on the complexely rolled sheet without destroying their precious find.
Prof. Rubina Raja
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Prof. Rubina Raja
The classical archaeologist Prof. Rubina Raja from Aarhus University has, together with a Danish-German team of researchers and with grants from the Carlsberg Foundation and others, worked in the famous Decapolis city Jerash in Jordan since 2011. With the find of a rolled-up silver scroll encapsulated in lead the techniques of the archaeologists were put to the test. In 2014 during an excavation of an early Islamic house, the researchers found a small metal case with a very thin and complexly rolled metal sheet. This metal sheet emerged to be made from mostly silver mixed with gold. It also had visible writing. Such amulets are known from the Antiquity, where they served as magical protection.

The unique find turned out to be impossible to unfold without the risk of damaging it and therefore it seemed impossible to unfold the sheet in order to read it. After some discussions and preparations, the scroll was finally CT scanned. Next a philologist was trained to use a special program developed for industrial purposes that can digitally unfold different materials. After an analysis of the silver scroll, the archaeologists are no longer in doubt: The results are outstanding.

"The little 4 x 10 cm silver scroll showed to be densely covered with 17 lines of pseudo-Arabic writing. Even though the writing cannot be read, because it is pseudo, the finding gives a unique insight into the continuation of Semitic and Greek-Roman magical traditions far into the Islamic period. The writings vary a lot as well as they tell us about the cultural society and the local and individual practice in various places around the Mediterranean," says Professor Rubina Raja.

In Antiquity, magical amulets were often used to keep evil forces away, and the enclosed texts were written on papyri, lead or silver. Whilst the archaeologists often can unroll papyri and interpret the inscriptions, it is rarely the case with the metal scrolls that often are very thin and tightly rolled. The risk of damaging the metal is too high, therefore the archaeologists often decide not to open the scrolls at all. However, the digital unrolling of the silver scroll shows how today's archaeologists are able to interpret and understand cultural phenomenon through small objects when archaeological and scientific methods, philological expertise and digital imaging are combined.

The Chairman of the Carlsberg Foundation, Professor Flemming Besenbacher, is very excited about the new research: "With the combination of state of the art interdisciplinary technologies, Professor Rubina Raja and her outstanding research team have pushed modern archaeology forward and thereby created groundbreaking results. Combining CT-scan with the use of digital imaging software for industrial purposes on the little silver scroll, they have made a new breakthrough in the effort to uncover parts of a grand narrative of the past – namely whether or not there was continuation of or change between the Late Antique and early Islamic periods. They have shown that this is a much more complex narrative than usually told", he says.

Rubina Raja is Professor in classical archaeology at Aarhus University and President for Danish Primary Research Foundation Centre of Excellence for Urban Network Evolutions at Aarhus University. She conducts research in urban archaeology, architecture, iconography, high definition archaeology and culture in the Mediterranean area, especially in the Greek-Roman area in the Middle East. She is co-director of the Danish-German 'Northwest Quarter Project' in Jerash, Jordan.
  (© Carlsberg Foundation, AcademiaNet)

More information

Source

  • G.H. Barfod, J.M. Larsen, A. Lichtenberger, R. Raja: Revealing text in a complexly rolled silver scroll from Jerash with computed tomography and advanced imaging software. Nature Scientific Reports, published December 9, 2015, DOI: 10.1038/srep17765

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