Ancient clay tablets that went on public display for the first time this week provide a rare glimpse of how Jews lived during their exile in Babylon over two millennia ago, reports said.
The approximately 200 tablets, which date to 572–477 B.C., the time of the exile under King Nebuchadnezzar, were discovered in modern-day Iraq, possibly during the 1970s. David Sofer, a London-based Israeli collector, owns 110 of them, or about half of the collection, which is known as the Al-Yahudu archive, Artnet News said.
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The tablets are being shown at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem.
Written in Akkadian Cuneiform script, an extinct Semitic language, the palm-sized tablets document the lives of members of the Jewish communities in villages in the Fertile Crescent, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the report said.
Each tablet is inscribed with a date ranging from 572 – 477 B.C., with the earliest written about 15 years after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple, and the last written about 60 years after the first wave of exiles returned from Babylon, the Christian Examiner said.
Filip Vukosavovic, an ancient Babylon, Sumeria, and Assyria expert who curated the museum’s “By the Rivers of Babylon” exhibition, told Reuters that the tablets’ discovery “fills in a critical gap in understanding of what was going on in the life of Judeans in Babylonia more than 2, 500 years ago” Previously, little was known about Jewish life during the time of exile. “It was like hitting the jackpot, ” he added, Artnet News said.
Each clay tablet, like an ancient iPad, reveals details about taxes, payments, trading, property leases, and local trading of fruit and other items. The family of one Jewish patriarch, Samak-Yama, can be traced over five generations through the documents. “We even know the details of the inheritance made to the five great-grandchildren, ” said Vukosavovic, according to the report. “On the one hand it’s boring details, but on the other you learn so much about who these exiled people were and how they lived.”
The tablets also have Judaic names recorded on them that may be central characters of the biblical narrative surrounding the capture of Jerusalem and 70-year exile, the Examiner said.
Though the exile was fairly short-lived for many, as Persia’s King Cyrus enabled the Jews to return to the Holy Land in 538 B.C., a Jewish community some 80, 000 people strong remained in the region for over two millennia. “The descendants of those Jews only returned to Israel in the 1950s, ” Vukosavovic said, according to Artnet News.
Wayne Horowitz, one of the archaeologists who studied the tablets, says this is the most important ancient Jewish archive since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, according to Haaretz digital. Until now very little had been known about the life of the Judean community in Babylon.