Archive for June 13th, 2008

A date 2000 years in the making

Friday, June 13th, 2008

I’m absurdly proud of that title, and here’s why: Israeli researchers planted a 2000-year-old date palm seed that archaeologists collected from Masada in the 60’s and it actually grew!

Now it’s a foot and a half tall and the oldest seed to have ever germinated. (A 1300-year-old lotus seed found in a dry lake bed in China is the previous title holder.)

They didn’t just plop the pit into a pot. Elaine Solowey, with the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel, bathed three seeds in fertilizer and enzyme-rich solutions before they were planted.

“Two of them came up,” Dr. Sallon says.

She and her colleagues weren’t sure exactly how old the seed was when they planted it. But when the sapling was repotted after a year and a half, they found seed fragments clinging to the roots and sent them to Switzerland to be dated.

Markus Elgi at the University of Zurich’s Radiocarbon Laboratory analyzed the fragments and two other seeds that had been found at the same spot, but hadn’t grown. He found they were 2,000 years old, give or take 50 years.

The Judean date palm died out a few hundred years later — the date palms in Isreal today come from Californian stock, sadly — but according to Pliny, there used to be vast forests of Judean date palms in the Jordan river valley, and Judean dates were known to be especially large and delicious.

They became symbols of Judea, playing a featured role on the ancient shekel and on Vespasian’s sore-winnery Iudea Capta sestertius, in which a woman in mourning sits and a bound man with weapons cast on the ground stands under a Judean date palm.

We won’t know for 2 or 3 more years if Methuselah is female, and even if she is a ladeh, she might not flower or fruit for her own reasons. I’m hoping it might some day be possible to sample the same dates that were the Masada Sicarii’s last snack.

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