The groundbreaking archaeology study, led by researchers at Tel Aviv University, analysed a collection of pottery shards from the seventh century BC. The hoard of some 100 2,500-year-old artefacts contains a number of inscriptions and military correspondences. The so-called ostraca were uncovered in the 1960s by archaeologists at the ancient fort of Tel Arad in Negev.
With the aid of AI and police handwriting experts, the Tel Aviv researchers have studied the shards to learn a great deal about the literacy of ancient Jews.
Leading the forensic investigation was Yana Gerber of Israel police’s International Crime Investigations Unit.
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She said: “This study was very exciting, perhaps the most exciting in my professional career.
“These are ancient Hebrew inscriptions written in ink on shards of pottery, utilising an alphabet that was previously unfamiliar to me.
“I studied the characteristics of the writing in order to analyse and compare the inscriptions, while benefitting from skills and knowledge I acquired during my bachelor’s degree in classical archaeology and ancient Greek at Tel Aviv University.”
Ms Gerber was aided by two “enhanced writer identification algorithms”.
She said: “I had the feeling that time stood still and there was no gap of 2,600 years between the writers of the ostraca and ourselves.”
The study’s findings were published this week (September 9) in the journal PLOS ONE.
Based on their analysis, the researchers determined literacy was fairly widespread among the seventh century Judahites at Tel Arad.
I had the feeling that time stood still and there was no gap of 2,600 years
Yana Gerber, Israel police International Crime Investigations Unit
In turn, the discovery offers new insights into when the Bible’s books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings were penned.
The researchers determined there were at least three writers among the 20 to 30 military personnel stationed at Tel Arad.
They have also identified a minimum of 12 authors of 18 inscriptions, which suggests the ancient Jadhites were fairly well educated.
Consequently, the findings explain how early Biblical texts could have been penned and spread among the ancient Kingdom of Judah.
Dr Barak Sober said: “The commanding ranks and liaison officers at the outpost, and even the quartermaster Elyashiv and his deputy, Nahum, were literate.
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“Someone had to teach them how to read and write, so we must assume the existence of an appropriate educational system in Judah at the end of the First Temple period.”
Professor Israel Finkelstein said: “If in a remote place like Tel Arad there were, 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.”
However, the literacy may have been shortlived due to the Babylonian invasion of 586 BC.
This was the year the First Temple of Jerusalem was plundered and destroyed.
The study’s authors wrote: “The unprecedented scribal activity during this era provides a suitable literacy level and historical context for the composition and dissemination (including appreciation among the population) of several fundamental Judahite biblical texts.
“We refer mainly to the Book of Deuteronomy and to the first version of the consolidated narrative presented in the Books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings–the so-called Deuteronomistic History.
“These writings served as the law and ‘historical’ platforms aimed at advancing the Judahite ideology and theology at the end of seventh –beginning of the sixth centuries BCE.”
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