CSI Expert Helps Israeli Archaeologists Nail Writers of 2,600-year-old Letters

Forensic analysis of texts found at Tel Arad shows at least 12 different authors, giving clues about literacy in ancient Judah and when the oldest books in the Bible were first written

Ariel David
Ariel David
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Hebrew ostraca from Arad
Hebrew ostraca from AradCredit: Michael Cordonsky, Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority
Ariel David
Ariel David

The general population of ancient Israelites at the end of the First Temple period was indeed fairly literate, a new study published on Wednesday in PLOS ONE indicates. At least, it seems the armed forces of Judah were.

Archaeologists enlisted the help of a former forensic police officer as well as artificial intelligence experts to probe letters written more than 2,600 years ago by soldiers of the biblical Kingdom of Judah, which were unearthed in a remote desert outpost in today’s southern Israel. The goal of the unusual research was not to identify a suspect in a crime: using a combination of traditional handwriting analysis and advanced machine learning algorithms, the scientists sought to elucidate the number of authors involved in penning the ancient documents. The study is part of a broader project focusing on texts from the First Temple Period to better understand the level of literacy of the ancient Israelites. This avenue of research also has broader implications for scholars trying to figure out when the earliest books of the Bible were first written down.

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The idea is that if we can tell how many individuals were behind a certain number of inscriptions, we can get a rough idea of how widespread reading and writing were in that time and place, and whether there was enough literacy to support the compilation and transmission of a great opus such as the biblical history.

Spearheaded by a team of archaeologists and mathematicians at Tel Aviv University, the latest study concluded that at least 12 different hands were involved in composing 18 texts that were unearthed in the 1960s among the ruins of the ancient Judahite fortress at Tel Arad. These inked potsherds, also known as ostraca, are dated to around 600 B.C.E., just a few years before the Babylonians overran Judah and destroyed Jerusalem along with the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. The letters deal mainly with mundane requests for supplies for the soldiers and mercenaries. Many of them were addressed to one Elyashiv, the stronghold’s quartermaster, and his deputy.

The findings are an incremental step beyond a 2016 study of the same inscriptions, which used only algorithms to study the handwriting on the ostraca and concluded that at least six writers were involved in their composition.

Hebrew ostraca from Arad
Credit: Michael Cordonsky, Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority
Examples of different handwriting
Examples of different handwriting: different shapes, slants, relative length, width and intersection points of the horizontal and vertical shaft of the letter tawCredit: Yana Gerber; the Institute of Archaeology, Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority

Agnostic algorithms

This time around, the researchers combined the use of new, beefed-up algorithms with an analysis by Yana Gerber, a former forensic expert with the Israel Police.

“It was a professionally and emotionally exciting experience,” Gerber tells Haaretz. “I felt that time stood still and there was no 2,600-year gap between the writers of the ostraca and us.”

Gerber had to learn the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet that was used in the First Temple Period, but she was otherwise mostly able to apply the same techniques she used to compare handwriting during her 27-year-long career in the document forgery and analysis laboratory of the police’s Forensic Services Department and in the International Crime Investigations Unit. 

“Handwriting is made up of unconscious habit patterns and handwriting identification is based on the principle that these patterns are unique to each person and no two people write exactly alike,” she explains. “The forensic handwriting analysis tracks features corresponding to specific individuals, and concludes whether a single author or rather different authors wrote the given documents.”

Yana Gerber
Yana GerberCredit: Yana Gerber

The analysis compares parameters such as the general appearance and flow of the texts, writing style, the slant of letters, the spacing between strokes, the relative position of letters, the alignment of words and many more features.

AI can be a useful tool to analyze ancient texts, but there still seems to be no substitute for a trained human eye. Gerber identified at least 12 different hands in the Arad correspondence, while the algorithms used in the new study continue to “see” a minimum of four to seven authors.

This does not mean the findings are in contradiction, stresses Arie Shaus, a Tel Aviv University mathematician who is the lead author on the study.

The algorithms only examine a few parameters, much less than those analyzed by the human expert, and are designed to be statistically cautious in their assessment, especially since there are so few texts from the First Temple Period on which they can be “trained,” Shaus explains.

In other words the AI will only declare two texts to be written by different people if it finds statistically significant differences in the handwriting, but can fail to notice nuances.

Ostraca with different styles and handwriting, from Arad
Ostraca with different styles and handwriting, from AradCredit: Yana Gerber and the Israel Antiquities Authority

“There was no case in which there was a contradiction, in which the human expert said ‘we are talking about the same writers’ and the algorithm said ‘no, these two texts have different authors,’” Shaus says. “There were only situations in which the expert identified two different hands and the algorithm remained agnostic.”

The poor could read

The large number of writers for the 18 texts shows there was a high level of literacy in the Kingdom of Judah, says Professor Israel Finkelstein, a Tel Aviv University archaeologist and one of the leaders of the team.

It cannot be said that there was universal literacy in Judah but reading and writing must have spread also among the lower strata of society, since the small border outpost at Arad was likely not a prime location for the children of the elites to serve, he says. Yet low-ranking soldiers could write to the quartermaster Elyashiv and his assistant, a man named Nahum, who could understand and respond to the dispatches they received.

The results come into clearer focus when compared with the findings of another recent study by the same team, which analyzed inscriptions dated to the first half of the eighth century B.C.E. found in the palace at Samaria, the capital of Judah’s northern neighbor, the Kingdom of Israel. The algorithmic analysis of 31 of these ostraca attributed them to just two different scribes, and though the two groups are of inscriptions are from different genres and hence difficult to compare, the studies highlight the progression of literacy in the approximately 150 years that separate the Samaria and Arad texts, Finkelstein notes.

Israel Finkelstein
Israel FinkelsteinCredit: Tel Aviv University

Who was the bible written for?

The high level of literacy in Judah may also indirectly help answer the question of the earliest composition of biblical texts as we have them today.

Most modern biblical scholars agree that the holy text was redacted and edited over centuries, possibly collating older oral and written sources as well. But there is much debate on when this process began, and whether the oldest biblical texts can be traced to before the Babylonian conquest or were put in writing only after the exile.

The findings from Arad support the theory backed by many scholars, including Finkelstein, that the earliest versions of some biblical texts, particularly the books from Deuteronomy to Kings, were indeed first written at the end of the First Temple Period, likely during the reign of Josiah in the second half of the seventh century B.C.E.

Examples of algorithmic restoration of writing
Examples of algorithmic restoration of writingCredit: Barak Sober; the Institute of Archaeology, Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority
Dr. Arie Shaus
Dr. Arie ShausCredit: אוניברסיטת תא

“Whoever wrote the biblical works did not do so for us, so that we could read them after 2,600 years. They did so in order to promote the ideological messages of the time,” Finkelstein says. “When you see that literacy reached these levels, it means that the elites could use the written medium to spread theological, political and territorial ideas.”

At the time, the population of the small Kingdom of Judah is estimated to have been no more than 120,000, so if in a remote place like Arad there was, over a short period of time, a minimum of 12 authors for 18 inscriptions, it means that literacy was not the exclusive domain of royal scribes in Jerusalem, Finkelstein concludes.

“There was a broad capacity to write these texts and there was a public for them.” he says. “The writing of biblical texts was not intended solely for the eyes of the aristocracy. The quartermaster from the Tel Arad outpost also had the ability to read and appreciate them.”

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