Literacy may not have been widespread in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, 2,800 years ago
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 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.
The inscriptions from the eight 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.
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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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