The project was begun by TAU Professor of Archaeology Israel Finkelstein and Professor of Physics Eliezer Piasetsky six years ago. Since then, the researchers have enlisted the help of epigraphy, archaeology and math experts along with TAU Ph.D. math students Arie Shaus, Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin and Barak Sober.
At the center of this ambitious project are First Temple period clay potsherds bearing inscriptions. During the First Temple period (c. 1000 to 586 B.C.E., when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and razed the Temple), the Israelites often kept administrative and military records by writing on broken pottery pieces—known as ostraca—with ink. The Paleo-Hebrew script was used by the Israelites during this time.
Normally, an epigrapher, a specialist in deciphering and analyzing inscriptions, would transcribe an inscription to the best of his or her ability in drawings done by hand. These drawings are based on what the epigrapher sees and therefore hinge on an interpretive process.
By creating a computer program that can recognize and transcribe handwritten Paleo-Hebrew letters, the TAU researchers hope to reduce human error and reveal aspects of inscriptions that may not be visible to the naked eye.
Working with 17 out of about 100 ostraca from the Iron Age fortress at Arad in the Negev desert, the researchers first took digital photos of the inscribed potsherds. Using parts of an advanced digital camera, Ph.D. students Shaus, Faigenbaum-Golovin and Sober built a camera that could take multi-spectral images of the ostraca, capturing light frequencies that the unaided human eye cannot see. This method of digital photography is similar to the digitization of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which was conducted in partnership with Google.
The students discovered that the digital photos made the fading inscriptions much clearer and readable and, moreover, shone a literal light on inscriptions that were previously not noticed.
Shaus, Faigenbaum-Golovin and Sober then wrote a software program using handwriting recognition algorithms to read the most used Paleo-Hebrew letters on the ostraca and to determine how many different hands wrote the inscriptions.
The researchers’ findings will be published soon, and, if successful, the computer program might be able to shed light on how widespread literacy was in the First Temple period.
“Was there a single scribe who took down all the orders for Eliashiv [commander at Arad] and the others in the fortress,” Finkelstein told Haaretz, “or were there many people who knew how to read and write? Was writing widespread or was it just a tool for the elites?”
If literacy was more widespread than previously thought, could this also offer clues as to when the Hebrew Bible’s texts were first written? Whether the texts were written before the Babylonian conquest and exile of the Jews or later on, in the Persian or Hellenistic period, is a matter of scholarly debate. If more people were literate than previously thought during the First Temple period, it’s conceivable that some of the Biblical texts were written down before the exile of the Jews in 586 B.C.E., according to Finkelstein.
Learn more about the development of writing in the Levant in the BAS Library:
Jonathan P. Siegel, “The Evolution of Two Hebrew Scripts,” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 1979.
Frank Moore Cross, “Defusing Pseudo-Scholarship: Paleo-Hebrew vs. Old Hebrew: The Long and the Short of It,” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 1997.
Christopher A. Rollston, “What’s the Oldest Hebrew Inscription?” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2012.
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