Samaria Inscriptions from King Omri’s Dynasty

Literacy may not have been widespread in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, 2,800 years ago

Areas in Samaria Inscriptions

Locations and Clans referenced in the Samaria ostraca.
Credit: PLOS One

The Samaria hoard was found in 1910 in excavations that revealed that Samaria was a wealthy metropolis, center of the Omride dynasty until the Assyrians took over around 720 B.C.E. It is the largest collection of formal inscriptions, ink writing on broken pieces of pottery, or ostraca, yet found. These inscriptions are bureaucratic records: mainly relating to deliveries of wine or oil to the palace from nearby villages.

In an article released January 22nd, 2020 in PLOS ONE, researchers shared their conclusion, based on algorithmic handwriting analysis, that 31 of the Samaria inscriptions were written by two scribes. This analysis used image processing and new statistical analysis techniques. This supports the theory that literacy was not widespread in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, 2,800 years ago.

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The inscriptions from the eighth century B.C.E. were written by two scribes, probably based in the palace, not by the hand of a more diverse set of writers. This suggests that literacy may not have been widespread in the Northern Kingdom of Israel at the time of King Omri, and the Omride dynasty that he founded. By contrast, the scholars attest, a smaller sample of inscriptions (the Arad ostraca) from approximately 200 years later, reveals four different authors, in an outpost far from the center of Judah.

Alan Millard explored the issue of literacy for BAS in “The Question of Israelite Literacy” (Bible Review, Fall 1987). While noting that writing samples were sparse prior to 750 B.C.E., he was not prepared to say that it “was a time of little writing, limited to the courts, not touching the consciousness of most Israelites at all.” He wrote that, “It is a fallacy, however, to deduce directly from the absence of a feature in an archaeological horizon that it did not, or could not, exist in it.” He pointed out why more casual writing might not be preserved, or found by researchers.

Thirty years later, based on the information that has been found, the authors of this study don’t necessarily agree with Millard’s earlier analysis. They conclude, “Over the course of the century and a half or two centuries that separate the two corpora [from the Samaria ostraca to the Arad ostraca], we observe development from a writing milieu centered mainly around the royal court to a broad proliferation of literacy.”

The study “Algorithmic handwriting analysis of the Samaria inscriptions illuminates bureaucratic apparatus in biblical Israel” was conducted by Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin, Arie Shaus, Barak Sober, Eli Turkel, Eli Piasetzky and Israel Finkelstein. It appeared in PLOS One in January 22, 2020.


Sample Samaria Inscriptions

Sample Samaria ostraca
A: “In the year ni[ne] from Az[…]t Par’an to Shemaryau jar of aged wine”;
B: “In the year ten from Hazeroth to Gaddiyau jar of bath oil”.
Credit: PLOS One

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Ancient Samaria and Jerusalem Jill Katz explains how the field of urban anthropology can shed light on the ideological differences between Jerusalem and Samaria.

The Samaria Ivories—Phoenician or Israelite? From the moment they were discovered, the Samaria ivories created fanfare. Recently some scholars have challenged the long-accepted assumption about the ivories’ origins.

The Palace of the Kings of Israel—in the Bible and Archaeology King Omri of Israel selected Samaria as his capital and built an elaborate palace there in the ninth century B.C.E. What did this palace look like, and was it destroyed when the Assyrians conquered the kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C.E.?

Precursor to Paleo-Hebrew Script Discovered in Jerusalem Alan Millard examines the Proto-Canaanite script of the earliest alphabetic text ever found in Jerusalem. What can it tell us about literacy during the time of David and Solomon?

Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel Did ancient Israelites write? Is there evidence apart from the Hebrew Bible? If so, what did they write? And who could write? Inscriptions on stone, notes and scribbles on pots and potsherds, names on seals and other writings are often so interesting you don’t ask how they were written or who the writers were. Chris Rollston does that in this readable book.

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