Two scribes behind 31 inscriptions discovered in biblical Samaria

The landmark inscriptions list shipments of items such as oil and wine to Samaria over the course of at least seven years, providing a glimpse into the logistical infrastructure of the kingdom.

Colorized ostraca (ink on clay inscriptions) from Samaria, the capital of biblical Israel. The inscriptions are dated to the early 8th century BCE (photo credit: THE SEMITIC MUSEUM OF HARVARD UNIVERSITY)
Colorized ostraca (ink on clay inscriptions) from Samaria, the capital of biblical Israel. The inscriptions are dated to the early 8th century BCE
(photo credit: THE SEMITIC MUSEUM OF HARVARD UNIVERSITY)
In 1910, American archaeologist George Andrew Reisner was conducting an excavation in Samaria, the ancient capital of the biblical Kingdom of Israel. In the heart of the land where many of the events of the Bible took place, Reisner made an extraordinary discovery: over 100 fragments of pottery carrying ink-on-clay biblical Hebrew inscriptions.
One hundred-ten years later, new research by Tel Aviv University has shown that only two authors are behind 31 of the renowned “Samaria Ostraca” fragments, shedding new light on the life of ancient Israelites.
The study, which was published on Wednesday in scientific research journal PLOS One, also confirmed that the inscriptions were written in the city of Samaria itself.
The team behind this discovery included archaeologists as well as physicists and other hard science experts.
“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,” archaeologist and coauthor Prof. Israel Finkelstein explained.
The landmark inscriptions list shipments of items such as oil and wine to Samaria over the course of at least seven years, providing a glimpse into the logistical infrastructure of the kingdom. Moreover, names of peoples, clans and villages are provided along with the year of a given monarchy when the shipment took place.
According to the TAU team, the fragments likely date back to the first half of the eighth century BCE, possibly during the reign of King Jeroboam II, whose kingdom is described in the biblical Book of 2 Kings.
“Our results, accompanied by other pieces of evidence, also seem to indicate a limited dispersion of literacy in Israel in the early 8th century BCE,” coauthor Prof. Eliezer Piasetzky highlighted.
An earlier study by the same group of researchers, published in 2016, showed that around 150 years later in the 6th century BCE, literacy was much more widespread in the region.
“It seems that during these two centuries that passed between the composition of the Samaria and the Arad corpora, there was an increase in literacy rates within the population of the Hebrew kingdoms,” PhD candidate Arie Shaus said.
“Our previous research paved the way for the current study. We enhanced our previously developed methodology, which sought the minimum number of writers, and introduced new statistical tools to establish a most likelihood estimate for the number of hands in a corpus,” Shaus added.
In order to assess how many writers were behind the ostraca inscriptions, the team developed an algorithm employing a combination of image processing and machine learning technology.

According to PhD candidate and coauthor Barak Sober, this algorithm allowed researchers “to conclude that two writers wrote the 31 examined texts, with a confidence interval of 95%.”
The group said that it intends to employ the technology it developed to study other inscriptions from different times and locations.