Photo Credit: Prof. Israel Finkelstein
Samaritan inscription

Researchers from the Department of Mathematics at Tel Aviv University led by Prof. Israel Finkelstein of the Department of Archaeology and Early Eastern Cultures and Prof. Eli Pistecky from the School of Physics, developed an innovative method for determining the number of authors of ancient inscription collections discovered in archaeological excavations. They applied these algorithms to dozens of short administrative inscriptions excavated in Samaria, the capital of the Kingdom of Israel, and found that they were written by only two people.

“Based on the findings, we assume that all the inscriptions were written by two people, probably the writers or clerks working for King Jeroboam II, son of Jehoash, who reigned in the first half of the 8th century BCE,” said Prof. Finkelstein.


Prof. Eli Turkel, PhD candidate Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin, Dr. Aryeh Schaus and Dr. Barak Sober from the Department of Applied Mathematics participated in the study, which is due to be published Wednesday night in the journal PLOS ONE (Algorithmic handwriting analysis of the Samaria inscriptions illuminates bureaucratic apparatus in biblical Israel).

“Samaritan inscriptions were found in the early 20th century in the excavations of the city of Samaria, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Israel,” Prof. Finkelstein explained. “These are clay fragments with ink writings (ostracons) used for administrative bookkeeping. Each one of them bears a short inscription in ancient Hebrew: the year of the king; the merchandize – wine or oil; the geographical location from which the goods came; and sometimes the shipper’s name.

Samaritan inscription / Prof. Israel Finkelstein

“These are probably records from a period of seven years during the rule of the important King Jeroboam II, who reigned in the first half of the eighth century BCE. The goods had been shipped from the tribe of Menashe at the heart of the kingdom, near the capital, and some of the names that appear in the inscriptions are also mentioned in the Bible. For many years, scholars have wondered if the inscriptions were written by the King’s representatives who sat in those areas outside the capital, or by the King’s officials in the capital itself upon the arrival of the goods – which could help to understand the administration of the kingdom, and also estimate the level of literacy at that time,” Prof. Finkelstein continued, adding, “We focused the question on the number of writers of Samaritan inscriptions.”

To reach an answer, the researchers used an algorithm for analyzing manuscripts which they had developed in a previous study of inscriptions found in Arad – a remote military post of the Kingdom of Judah from around 600 BCE.

“The method is based on comparing and separating pairs of manuscripts in all possible combinations, and determining if they were written by different people,” Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin explained. “In Arad, the algorithm showed that the 16 inscriptions were written by at least four people. When we applied the algorithm to 31 of the Samaritan ostracons, we found that there were at least two writers. This finding is important, but this time it did not satisfy us. We wanted to define as many writers as possible, or, in statistical terms, the most likely number of writers. To that end, we needed further development.”

In the new work, the researchers conducted a statistical review of possible algorithm errors, which may have resulted from the fact that the Samaritan inscriptions are short and contain only few letters.

“We simulated possible errors, using short excerpts taken from the Arad inscriptions, which we already know,” Dr. Barak Sober explained. “For example, we applied the algorithm to pairs of short segments taken from the same inscription in Arad, so we knew in advance that they were written by one person. We discovered that the algorithm was almost never wrong, and so we concluded that it was also accurate in analyzing Samaritan inscriptions. Our conclusion: the number of writers in Samaria was exactly two – with a 95% certainty.”

“Despite many attempts, we did not find any textual characteristics that can be attributed to any one writer in particular,” added Dr. Arieh Schaus. “The two appear to have been working during the same years, received shipments from the same places and handled the same types of goods. In other words, it can be hypothesized that the two writers or officials acted in parallel, perhaps in shifts, and backed each other up.”

“In our research we were able to develop a new and important tool for exploring ancient texts,” concluded Prof. Pistecky. “Researchers in this field—paleography, have relied on the form of letters, material and ink, content and more. From now on, with our method, they can also determine the number of writers. In the case of the Samaritan inscriptions, the finding helps us to better understand the administrative practices in the Kingdom of Israel. Another possible conclusion is that the knowledge of writing was not yet very common in Israel at this time – the first half of the 8th century BCE, and was concentrated mainly around the King’s Palace. It is conceivable that this ability also enabled the writing of literary texts, such as the writings of the prophets Hosea and Amos, who lived and worked in the Kingdom of Israel.”

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