Literacy may have been widespread in Judea

Literacy may have been much more widespread than thought in the ancient Kingdom of Judea, according to Israeli and US researchers. And they say this with renewed confidence after complementing modern technology with more old-world skills.

200912 ostraca 1
Hebrew ostraca from Tel Arad. Credit: Michael Cordonsky, TAU and the Israel Antiquities Authority

Four years ago, a multi-disciplinary team from Tel Aviv University used state-of-the-art image processing and machine learning algorithms to analyse 18 ancient texts dating to around 600BCE uncovered at the Tel Arad military post in southern Israel in the 1960s.

They initially concluded that these were written by no fewer than four different authors, then upped that number to six.

That caused more than a little interest given that Tel Arad was a small post housing between 20 and 30 soldiers at a time when it was thought literacy was as an exclusive domain in the hands of a few royal scribes.

Now, in a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE, a team has finetuned these findings with the assistance of a forensic handwriting specialist.

When Yana Gerber examined the ostraca (fragments of pottery vessels containing ink inscriptions) she concluded that the texts were in fact written by no fewer than 12 authors.

It was no easy task, given that she was unfamiliar with the alphabet used, but a background in classical archaeology and ancient Greek probably helped.

“I delved into the microscopic details of these inscriptions written by people from the First Temple period,” she says, “from routine issues such as orders concerning the movement of soldiers and the supply of wine, oil, and flour, through correspondence with neighbouring fortresses, to orders that reached the Tel Arad fortress from the high ranks of the Judahite military system.”

Whatever the age, handwriting is made up of unconscious habit patterns, Gerber says, and handwriting identification is based on the principle that these writing patterns are unique to each person and no two people write exactly alike.

“It is also assumed that repetitions of the same text or characters by the same writer are not exactly identical and one can define a range of natural handwriting variations specific to each one.”

Algorithms, on the other hand are “of a cautious nature”, says mathematician and co-lead author Arie Shaus. “[T]hey know how to identify cases in which the texts were written by people with significantly different writing; in other cases, they refrain from definite conclusions.”

By whatever means, the researchers believe the findings shed new light on Judahite society on the eve of the destruction of the First Temple and on the setting of the compilation of biblical texts.

“Until now, the discussion of literacy in the kingdom of Judah has been based on circular arguments, on what is written within the Bible itself, for example on scribes in the kingdom. We have shifted the discussion to an empirical perspective,” says archaeologist and co-author Israel Finkelstein.

“If in a remote place like Tel Arad there was, over a short period of time, a minimum of 12 authors of 18 inscriptions, out of the population of Judah which is estimated to have been no more than 120,000 people, it means that literacy was not the exclusive domain of a handful of royal scribes in Jerusalem.

“The quartermaster from the Tel Arad outpost also had the ability to read and appreciate them.”

Please login to favourite this article.