TAU: Tel Arad texts show literacy in Kingdom of Judah was widespread

Researchers used state-of-the-art image processing and machine-learning technologies to analyze the texts, along with police forensic methods.

Hebrew ostraca from Arad. (photo credit: MICHAEL CORDONSKY/TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY AND ISRAEL A)
Hebrew ostraca from Arad.
Jews have always been known as the “People of the Book,” but how many people in the Kingdom of Judah could read and write?
That’s the question that researchers who conducted an interdisciplinary study at Tel Aviv University set out to answer when they analyzed 18 ancient texts from the Tel Arad military post dating back to around 600 BCE, with an eye to understanding how the literacy of the population would have impacted biblical texts such as the Book of Kings.
In findings published in the PLOS ONE journal on September 9, in an article titled “Forensic document examination and algorithmic handwriting analysis of Judahite biblical period inscriptions reveal significant literacy level,” the authors concluded that the texts were written by no fewer than 12 authors, which suggests that many of the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Judah during that period were able to read and write, and that literacy was not reserved for a handful of royal scribes.
While many have pondered these questions in the past, these researchers used state-of-the-art image processing and machine-learning technologies to analyze the texts, and, finally, they called the cops. Or one retired cop to be more precise, forensic handwriting specialist Yana Gerber, a senior expert who served for 27 years in the Questioned Documents Laboratory of the Israel Police Division of Identification and Forensic Science, and in the police’s International Crime Investigations Unit.
She joined Dr. Arie Shaus, Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin, and Dr. Barak Sober of the department of applied mathematics, Prof. Eli Piasetzky of the Raymond and Beverly Sackler School of Physics and Astronomy, and Prof. Israel Finkelstein of the Jacob M. Alkow department of archeology and Ancient Near Eastern civilizations.
Shaus explained, “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.
“One way to try to get to the bottom of this question is to ask when there was the potential for the writing of such complex historical works. For the period following the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, there is a very scant archaeological evidence of Hebrew writing in Jerusalem and its surroundings, whereas for the period preceding the destruction of the Temple, an abundance of written documents has been found.
“But then the question arises – who wrote these documents? Was this a society with widespread literacy, or was there just a handful of literate people?”
The researchers spent years examining the writings found in Tel Arad, ostraca (fragments of pottery vessels containing ink inscriptions) that were discovered at the Tel Arad site in the 1960s.
Tel Arad was a small military post about 10 km. west of the modern city of Arad on the southern border of the Kingdom of Judah. Its built-up area occupied about 0.2 hectares (half an acre), and it housed between 20 and 30 soldiers.
In 2016, they decided that there were at least four different authors, possibly six, according to algorithms, statistical probability and textual evidence. Findings were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
But they kept thinking of other ways to explore these questions, and the TAU researchers decided to compare the algorithmic methods, which have since been refined, to the forensic approach and invited Gerber to join the team.
Using her forensic methods, Gerber found that the 18 texts were written by at least 12 distinct writers with varying degrees of certainty.
Gerber examined the original Tel Arad ostraca at the Israel Museum, the Eretz Israel Museum, the Sonia and Marco Nedler Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, and the Antiquities Authority’s warehouses at Beit Shemesh.
Gerber, who has a bachelor’s degree in classical archaeology and ancient Greek from TAU, said: “I delved into the microscopic details of these inscriptions written by people from the First Temple period, from routine issues such as orders concerning the movement of soldiers and the supply of wine, oil and flour, through correspondence with neighboring fortresses, to orders that reached the Tel Arad fortress from the high ranks of the Judahite military system. I had the feeling that the time stood still and there was no gap of 2,600 years between the writers of the ostraca and ourselves.”
Said Shaus: “We were in for a big surprise: Yana identified more authors than our algorithms did.
“It must be understood that, currently, our algorithms are of a ‘cautious’ nature – they 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.
“Contrastingly, an expert in handwriting analysis knows not only how to spot the differences between writers more accurately, but in some cases may also arrive at the conclusion that several texts were actually written by a single person.
“Naturally, in terms of consequences, it is very interesting to see who the authors are. Thanks to the findings, we were able to construct an entire flowchart of the correspondence concerning the military fortress – who wrote to whom and regarding what matter.”
A high rate of literacy indicates that many people had the ability to compile biblical texts before the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians and opens the door to learning much more about biblical authors.