Israeli researchers find origins of literacy in ancient Samaria

“Over the course of the century and a half or two centuries that separate the two corpora, we observe the development…to a broad proliferation of literacy,” they conclude.

By World Israel News Staff 

Israeli researchers are using modern-day artificial intelligence to study ancient Hebrew inscriptions on fragments of clay found in Samarian ruins, according to an article in the U.S.-based PLOS ONE, published on Wednesday.

“Past excavations in Samaria, capital of biblical Israel, yielded a corpus of Hebrew ink on clay inscriptions (ostraca) that documents wine and oil shipments to the palace from surrounding localities,” says the article.

“Many questions regarding these early 8th century BCE texts, in particular the location of their composition, have been debated. Authorship in countryside villages or estates would attest to widespread literacy in a relatively early phase of ancient Israel’s history,” it explains.

The article is written by Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin, Arie Shaus, Barak Sober, Eli Turkel, Eli Piasetzky, and Israel Finkelstein.

They say that they used “an algorithmic investigation of 31 of the inscriptions” leading them to reach the conclusion that the inscriptions “were most likely written by two scribes who recorded the shipments in Samaria. We achieved our results through a method comprised of image processing and newly developed statistical learning techniques.”

The new technology allowed them to “achieve outcomes [that] contrast with our previous results, which indicated widespread literacy in the kingdom of Judah a century and a half to two centuries later, ca. 600 BCE.”

This indicates “a significant dissemination of literacy in Judah in the years before its destruction by Babylonia,” they add.

The Babylonians destroyed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in the year 586 BCE.

“The maximum likelihood estimate of two writers, obtained in this research, seems to shed light on the administrative apparatus in the kingdom of Israel,” say the researchers in their article.

As a result, “one may hypothesize that… during the days of Joash [who reigned as king 836–796 BCE] or the first years of Jeroboam II [who succeeded Joash on the throne], Hebrew writing had already been sufficiently developed to enable recording on ostraca; a while later, during the peak prosperity of the kingdom, the system could have changed to a more efficient recording system, perhaps using papyri,” their research found.

“In other words, over the course of the century and a half or two centuries that separate the two corpora, we observe the development from a writing milieu centered mainly around the royal court to a broad proliferation of literacy,” the researchers conclude.