Illiterate Israelites? Hi-tech review of ancient sherds suggests few scribes


A new hi-tech look at the eighth century BCE Samaria Ostraca cache has led a multi-disciplinary Tel Aviv University team of researchers to discover new insights into the prevalence of scribes and writing in the Holy Land during the biblical era.

The Samaria Ostraca, a collection of some 100 pieces of pottery sherds, were discovered during 1910 excavations in ancient Nablus in a jumbled landfill, used for the construction of an ancient building.

Etched with ancient Hebrew lettering that records the delivery of wine and olive oil from the countryside to Nablus, the important collection has already led linguists to new discoveries related to spoken and written biblical Hebrew.

Now, a new Tel Aviv University study, “Algorithmic handwriting analysis of the Samaria inscriptions illuminates bureaucratic apparatus in biblical Israel,” published in the scientific journal, PLOS ONE, on January 22, further researches just how many scribes were actually employed to write on these pottery sherds.

To determine how many hands wrote the ancient texts, the team used a uniquely designed algorithm, which melded new technology of image processing and recently developed machine-learning techniques.

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first attempt to estimate the most likely number of writers at Samaria, or any other ancient corpus, via classical paleographic or computational means,” write the authors in the study.

Examples of Samaria ostraca: (Left) No. 14: ‘In the year ni[ne] from Az[…]t Par’an to Shemaryau jar of aged wine’; (Right) No. 18: ‘In the year ten from Hazeroth to Gaddiyau jar of bath oil.’ (Courtesy Tel Aviv University)

New scrutiny of the Samaria Ostraca has led the team of mathematicians, physicists, and archaeologists to hypothesize that the act of writing in the eighth century BCE was strictly limited, both in the number of scribes, and to bureaucratic centers controlled by the powerful Northern Kingdom.

The study was conducted by Tel Aviv University School of Mathematical Sciences doctoral candidate Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin, Dr. Arie Shaus, Dr. Barak Sober, and Prof. Eli Turkel; physicist Prof. Eli Piasetzky; and leading Israeli archaeologist Prof. Israel Finkelstein.

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“Our results, accompanied by other pieces of evidence, seem to indicate a limited dispersion of literacy in Israel in the early eighth century BCE,” said physicist Piasetzky in a TAU press release on Wednesday.

What is this trove of pottery sherds?

The Samaria Ostraca is a collection of over 100 pottery pieces upon which are recorded a few words of biblical Hebrew. They are priceless artifacts that today are housed in an Istanbul archaeological museum. The ostraca were thoroughly recorded by a 1910 Harvard Semitic Museum expedition, and the new study is based on digitally enhanced scans of the Harvard negatives.

Archaeologist Finkelstein told The Times of Israel that the team hopes to photograph the ostraca with multispectral imaging techniques in the future, which would lead to better results and reading. Previous imaging of “blank” sixth-century sherds have unveiled lost texts.

The few words etched on the small eighth-century clay pieces found in Nablus record commodities: which containers held what, from which region and clan, and when — the year of an unnamed monarch — they were brought to the ancient city. For example, piece No. 14 states: “In the year ni[ne] from Az[…]t Par’an to Shemaryau jar of aged wine.” Likewise, No. 18 reads: “In the year ten from Hazeroth to Gaddiyau jar of bath oil.”

Example of Samaria ostraca: No. 18: ‘In the year ten from Hazeroth to Gaddiyau jar of bath oil.’ (Courtesy Tel Aviv University)

Through these meager words, rare early examples of Iron Age, paleo-Hebrew script, linguists have already learned that those who wrote them spoke in a dialect of biblical Hebrew, today called the Northern dialect, which was different from that spoken in the Kingdom of Judah. Although the same language, words were pronounced differently and different word constructions were used. In addition to enriching the world of biblical Hebrew study, therefore, the ostraca also teach about trade and agriculture of the ancient world.

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The study dates the ostraca, “based on letter-shape considerations,” to the first half of the eighth century BCE, “possibly during the reign of King Jeroboam II of Israel.” The researchers explain that there was an era of prosperity in Israel took place in the first half of the eighth century. “Excavations at the site, conducted at the beginning of the 20th century, revealed a monumental and rich metropolis that lasted until the Assyrian takeover of the kingdom in 722/720 BCE.”

How was the study performed?

The researchers used two datasets of ancient written material for the current study: primarily data taken from the computerized analysis of 39 of the eighth century Samaria ostraca. These were chosen, said Finkelstein, because “We need ostraca with enough legible letters. We worked on 31 and used another set of eight for comparison.” These findings were compared with data from a previous 2016 study of six ostraca from an Arad fortress.

The TAU algorithm uses three steps: restoring characters on the grayscale images of the ostraca via a computerized “semi-automatic reconstruction procedure”; extraction of characters’ features such as their overall shape and the angles between strokes; and finally, a testing of the null hypothesis H0 (for each pair of ostraca), and checking whether the probability of whether any two given inscriptions were written by the same author.

Inscriptions in ancient Hebrew dating back 2,500 years discovered near Arad. (Tel Aviv University/ Michael Kordonsky, Israel Antiquities Authority)

The researchers found that in the sample of 39 Samaria inscriptions, there were only two scribes used, which they believe “sheds light on the administrative apparatus in the kingdom of Israel.”

“If only two scribes wrote the examined Samaria texts contemporaneously and both were located in Samaria rather than in the countryside, this would indicate a palace bureaucracy at the peak of the kingdom of Israel’s prosperity,” Finkelstein said in a TAU press release.

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He explained to The Times of Israel that while the ostraca were all found at Samaria, “They clearly state that that the commodities are being sent from villages or royal estates in the highlands around the capital.”

Therefore, although there is no sure way of knowing their provenance, one could assume that if the villages and estates also employed scribes, there would be evidence of more than two scribal hands on the ostraca, if the relatively small sample size of 39 eighth-century ostraca is assumed to be representational.

Why is this important?

The previous 2016 study of the Arad ostraca horde, researchers discovered that the pieces were written in four or six hands. This conclusion, alongside other written upon artifacts discovered at many sixth-century sites, caused the researchers to conclude that literacy was relatively widespread by the sixth century BCE.

Archaeologist Prof. Israel Finkelstein at Kiryat Yearim, August 22, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

Finkelstein acknowledged that the mere fact of ample material evidence does not necessarily prove that writing proliferated by that era. “There are many more ostraca in circa 600 BCE, also because of the many excavations in the Judahite Negev, with better climate conditions for preservation of ostraca,” he told The Times of Israel.

Finkelstein explained that in the eighth century, material evidence of writing includes the Samaria corpus under discussion in this study, as well as inscriptions from Kuntillet Ajrud in the Sinai, then under control of the Israelite Kingdom, and two ostraca from Beit Shean.

Letters inscribed on pottery, known as ostraca, which were unearthed in an excavation of a fort in Arad, Israel, and dated to about 600 BCE shortly before Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem, are seen in Israel Museum in Jerusalem, on April 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)

“So yes, we need to be careful with conclusions… At the same time, note the fact that in the first half of the eighth century we have Northern (Israel) plaster literary inscriptions at Deir Alla (Jordan Valley, on the Jordanian side, facing Nablus – in the territory of the North at that time) and Kuntillet Ajrud. This shows the ability to compose literary texts as early as the time of Jeroboam II, if not slightly before,” said Finkelstein.

And yet, the Arad ostraca contained military correspondence, whereas the Samaria ostraca are receipts of agricultural shipments. In comparing the two, “an interesting tendency appears,” write the authors.

“On the one hand, we observe just two scribes within the large Samaria ink ostraca corpus of the flourishing Northern Kingdom’s capital, with very little supporting evidence of writing skills from other sites in the realm,” they write. “This may hint that during this period literacy was, to some extent, restricted to the royal court.”





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