Forensic document examination and algorithmic handwriting analysis of Judahite biblical period inscriptions reveal significant literacy level

Arie Shaus, Yana Gerber, Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin, Barak Sober, Eli Piasetzky, Israel Finkelstein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Arad is a well preserved desert fort on the southern frontier of the biblical kingdom of Judah. Excavation of the site yielded over 100 Hebrew ostraca (ink inscriptions on potsherds) dated to ca. 600 BCE, the eve of Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem. Due to the site’s isolation, small size and texts that were written in a short time span, the Arad corpus holds important keys to understanding dissemination of literacy in Judah. Here we present the handwriting analysis of 18 Arad inscriptions, including more than 150 pair-wise assessments of writer’s identity. The examination was performed by two new algorithmic handwriting analysis methods and independently by a professional forensic document examiner. To the best of our knowledge, no such large-scale pair-wise assessments of ancient documents by a forensic expert has previously been published. Comparison of forensic examination with algorithmic analysis is also unique. Our study demonstrates substantial agreement between the results of these independent methods of investigation. Remarkably, the forensic examination reveals a high probability of at least 12 writers within the analyzed corpus. This is a major increment over the previously published algorithmic estimations, which revealed 4–7 writers for the same assemblage. The high literacy rate detected within the small Arad stronghold, estimated (using broadly-accepted paleo-demographic coefficients) to have accommodated 20–30 soldiers, demonstrates widespread literacy in the late 7th century BCE Judahite military and administration apparatuses, with the ability to compose biblical texts during this period a possible by-product.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0237962
JournalPLoS ONE
Volume15
Issue number9 September
DOIs
StatePublished - Sep 2020
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Shaus et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General

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