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Tel Arad fortress, source of the ostracon that led to the Biblical-era mystery.  Source: Public Domain

Israeli Forensic Police Investigator Helps Solve Bible-era Mystery

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Research on ancient writings in Israel may have solved a long-standing Bible-era mystery. Researchers have shown that literacy was much more common than previously assumed among the ancient Hebrews . This has important implications for the history of the compilation and writing of the Bible . Solving this Bible-era mystery also involved the unique skill set of an Israeli forensic policewoman!

This is what an ancient Hebrew ostracon or single ostraca looks like. This particular ostracon, an artist's copy of the original ceramic jar it was found on, is known as the Khirbet Qeiyafa Ostracon. It was found 20 miles (30 km) southwest of Jerusalem. (MichaelNetzer /CC BY-SA 3.0)

This is what an ancient Hebrew ostracon or single ostraca looks like. This particular ostracon, an artist's copy of the original ceramic jar it was found on, is known as the Khirbet Qeiyafa Ostracon. It was found 20 miles (30 km) southwest of Jerusalem. (MichaelNetzer / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Researchers from Tel Aviv University collaborated with a retired Israeli police forensic investigator to study a group of artifacts. They examined 18 shards of pottery that were inscribed with writings. The study aimed to determine the literacy of the general population in the Kingdom of Judah . This was, along with the northern state of Israel, the successor state of the kingdom founded by legendary King David . The Hebrew ostraca (ink inscriptions on clay), found at the Arad fortress in the Negev Desert, were scientifically dated. The shards were found to be 2600 years old, which was just before the Babylonian invasion that destroyed the Kingdom of Judah.

This map shows the ancient location of Arad in Bible-era Israel, along with the main towns in Judah and sites in the Beer Sheba valley ca. 600 BC. (© 2020 Shaus et al. PLoS ONE / CC BY 4.0)

This map shows the ancient location of Arad in Bible-era Israel, along with the main towns in Judah and sites in the Beer Sheba valley ca. 600 BC. (© 2020 Shaus et al. PLoS ONE / CC BY 4.0 )

Using Science To Determine Literacy In Ancient Judah

To determine general population literacy levels in ancient Israel, the team tried to identify the “number of ‘hands’ (distinct writers) in the Arad corpus,” according to an article on PLOS ONE . This approach was taken to better understand the literacy rate in 7th century BC Judah.

The research study relied on two new AI-supported algorithmic handwriting analysis methods. One researcher wrote in PLOS ONE that the methodology “aims at differentiating between writers of a given set of texts.” This would show how many people were involved in writing on clay (ostraca) and thereby provide an estimate of local literacy levels.

“It was a big challenge to adopt modern technologies to 2,600 year-old ostraca,” said Shira Faigenbaum-Golvin, a member of the research team, reports CBS News . The AI technology was able to identify if an ostracon was written by more than one writer. The results were compared to modern examples of Hebrew handwriting. However, even artificial intelligence has its limitations, and the researchers needed the help of a human expert to validate their findings.

Left: Ostracon 40 (9.5x14.6 cm), right: Ostracon 3 (6.0x5.9 cm). The poor state of preservation, including stains, cracks and blurred text, is apparent. The clay sherds are significantly different in shape, size, type of clay, and in their handwriting. (Image courtesy of Yana Gerber and the Israel Antiquities Authority © 2020 Shaus et al. / CC BY 4.0 )

How A Retired Forensic Police Investigator Helped

Yana Gerber, formerly a member of Israel’s International Crime Investigations Unit, joined the study. She is a retired forensic investigator who used handwriting analysis to catch criminals, making her a “real-life CSI investigator.” She is quoted by the Daily Express as saying that, “This study was very exciting, perhaps the most exciting in my professional career.” It was also challenging because she was unfamiliar with the paleo-Hebrew script.

The researchers wrote in PLOS ONE , “Forensic handwriting analysis aims at tracking features corresponding to specific individuals and utilizing them to decide whether the observed documents were written by a single hand or by different writers.” Yana adapted modern forensic handwriting techniques to examine the ancient Israeli ostraca. In PLOS ONE the research team wrote that “The examination process is divided into three steps: analysis, comparison, and evaluation.” In this way, the researchers identified how many writers wrote the ostraca.

Ancient text shards used in the study. (Michael Cordonsky, Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority)

Ancient text shards used in the study. (Michael Cordonsky, Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority)

Higher Literacy Rates, Than Expected, Were Established

Using the algorithms the researchers “could identify 12 different handwritings, out of 18 (texts), we could conclude that there was a high level of literacy throughout the entire kingdom,” said Dr Barak Sober, according to CBS News . Ms Gerber’s forensic conclusions were very similar.

The Daily Express reports, “The researchers determined there were at least three writers among the 20 to 30 military personnel stationed at Tel Arad.” This was much higher than a previous study, and particularly remarkable for an isolated outpost in the desert. Dr Sober also said that “The commanding ranks and liaison officers at the outpost, and even the quartermaster Elyashiv and his deputy, Nahum, were literate.”

These findings are extremely important as they show that ancient Judah had higher literacy levels than once believed. Haaretz reports that “The general population of ancient Israelites at the end of the First Temple period was indeed fairly literate.” This also suggests that many ancient Judahites were able to read and write and that there was likely some kind of basic education system.

Bible Mystery Solved?

This study, which is part of a much larger one on ancient literacy, has important implications for Bible scholars. There is a long-running academic debate regarding the age of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament, and their authors. CBS News quotes Dr Arie Shaus, one of the lead researchers, that “There is a lively debate among experts as to whether the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings were compiled in the last days of the kingdom of Judah, or after the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians.”

Archaeologists have found little evidence of writing in the period after the destruction of Judah by Babylon. However, they have found plenty of evidence of writing from the period before the Babylonian invasion, during the Kingdom of Judah. The Daily Express states that some scholars believe that many biblical texts “were written at the end of the 7th century BC, that is, very close to the period of the Arad ostraca.” The reign of King Josiah, a noted religious reformer, was especially noteworthy, in this regard.

The relatively high literacy rates found in this study may help other scholars prove that many biblical texts were composed at the end of the First Temple period, before the destruction of Jerusalem. This research also shows the importance of combining breakthrough technologies and human experts to solve the mysteries of the past.

Top image: Tel Arad fortress, source of the ostracon that led to the Biblical-era mystery.  Source: Public Domain

By Ed Whelan

Comments

I have long believed that literacy in the ancient general population in all nations, not just Israel, was more common and widespread than most historians have implied. Obvious evidence of this is to be found in the ruins of Pompei, where graffiti is everywhere; also there are many political and commercial advertisements that survive. Graffiti is generally associated with the lower classes, and the implication of posting ads is also obvious: you want to convey a message to the greatest number of people possible to everyone that has at least a working knowledge of written language, in those times probably acquired by home schooling.

The widespread modern assumption is that the common classes were almost totally illiterate, and we are somehow superior because we have state education, but even today in many nations there are still those who just have only sufficient reading and writing skills to get by.

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