What if archaeologists could bring the long-dead back to life? If you’re thinking ‘that’s a stupid idea and it’s bound to end up with the world being terrorised by escaped dinosaurs or worse… cursed mummies’, think again (and not just because archaeologists don’t dig dinosaurs). Seriously, what if archaeologists could bring back something that had been dead for 1,500 years? Something that would do us good?
For thousands of years, the Judean date palm was a quintessential feature of the Middle Eastern landscape. This beautiful tree not only produced sweet, succulent fruit and shade that provided cool respite from the blazing desert sun, it was also famed for its medicinal properties.
In fact, this palm was so renowned in the Judean Desert that it became a recognised symbol of the Kingdom of Judea. Archaeologists have found its image on ancient coins, votive pieces and artwork, and it is even praised in the Old Testament.
It was cultivated across the region and became such a valuable staple that by the time the Romans arrived in 70 AD, thick forests of Judean date palms covered the Jordan River valley.
But by 500 AD, the once abundant plant had been driven to extinction. Why? Some accounts say they were intentionally wiped out by the invading Roman army intent on destroying this pillar of the Judean economy, while others say it was simply down to a change in climate.
Either way, in the centuries that followed, knowledge of the tree slipped from living memory to legend. But in the 1960s, something extraordinary happened.
Archaeologists started excavating the archaeological site of Masada in Israel, a fortress besieged by the Romans, where its Judean occupants famously killed themselves rather than submit.
Here, under a mound of debris, archaeologists unearthed a clay jar full of seeds. Radiocarbon dating confirmed they were over 2,000 years old, roughly dating to 73AD around the time of the siege. The seeds were found in storage rooms, suggesting they had been stockpiled.
For the next forty years, they gathered dust in a drawer at Tel Aviv’s Bar-Ilan University. Nobody thought they were much use for anything.
But archaeologist Sarah Sallon had been reading historic documents praising the plant’s medicinal properties. When, in 2005, she found out that a cache of these long-extinct seeds had been found, she decided to hand them over to botanist Elaine Solowey at the Arava Institute of the Environment at the Kibbutz Ketura in Israel to see if they could get anything to sprout.
“I assumed the seed would be no good after all that time. How could it be?” said Solowey. She soon proved herself wrong.
To give them a bit of a boost, she pre-treated the seeds with a fertilizer and hormone-rich solution and planted three of them. Eight weeks later one of the seeds had sprouted, and by June 2008, the tree had nearly a dozen fronds and was nearly 1.4 m (4 ft) tall. By the summer of 2010, the sapling stood at about 2 meters tall.
Having been extinct for 1,500 years, the Judean Palm Tree became the oldest tree seed to germinate, until it was pipped to the post by a seed that had been buried in Siberia by a squirrel 32,000 years ago in 2012.
Today, at ten years old, this living treasure continues to thrive. In 2011, it produced its first flower and in March this year it was announced that the tree pollinated a modern variety and is now a dad. In the years since the tree first sprouted, Elaine has managed to germinate a handful of other date palm seeds found at archaeological sites around the Dead Sea and is now hoping to regrow an orchard of ancient date palms to study the medicinal properties for which they were once famed.
That’s truly amazing stuff. If you think so too, check out how you can help archaeologists bring another ancient woodland back to life.
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