Computational Paleography: Literacy in the Ancient Kingdoms of Israel and Judah

computational paleography

This project is a collaboration of researchers from the Rhodes Information Initiative and a team located at Tel-Aviv University. The team tackles various questions regarding literacy in the ancient kingdoms of Judah and Israel of the First Temple period (Iron Age) through a computational analysis of handwritten documents. We have devised an algorithm that tests whether two given inscriptions were written by a single scribe. Using statistical terminology, given samples of two populations we compute a p-value representing the chances that the samples were drawn independently from a single distribution. Due to the scarcity of historical data, our algorithm is designed for small data. In a nut-shell, taking all characters from 2 inscriptions of a specific letter-type we perform: distance embedding, clustering the characters into 2 sets, and measuring how similar the two clusters are to the original inscriptions (see Figure). Under the null-hypothesis that the two sample sets were drawn i.i.d. from a single distribution the clustering algorithm should yield random clusters. Thus, we can compute the probability for any occurrence to happen at random, without having restrictive assumptions on the distribution or the number of samples. Through performing multiple independent tests (per letter-type), we get statistically significant outcomes even in scenarios where the number of characters is very limited. Then, for a given corpus we conduct a series of pair comparisons and give a lower bound to the number of hands that created the corpus.

Applying this approach to the Arad Inscriptions dating to ca. 600 BCE yielded striking empirical evidence of high literacy rates in Judah just before its destruction by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. Our conclusions were validated by a forensic expert which showed that there are many more scribes then the lower bound given by the algorithm. Consequentially, it is not far-reaching to conclude that the administrative apparatus of the Judahite army was literate at that time.

However, examining 30 inscriptions from Samaria resulted in a lower bound of at least 2 scribes, which does not tell much. Such a negative outcome could be the result of too few sampled characters (Samaria inscriptions are typically shorter than Arad inscriptions), or perhaps an indication of a small number of scribes, which is important for the understanding of the historical scene. Using the Arad inscriptions to estimate our error rates we derived a Maximum Likelihood Estimate for the number of scribes in the examined corpus. The outcome of this research was that the largest corpus of Hebrew inscriptions of the eighth century BCE, was most likely written by just two scribes, with a confidence level of 95%! This outcome settled a long-standing debate among scholars whether or not the Samaria inscriptions were written in the capital itself by a registrar or by government representatives in the nearby villages.
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  • Prof. Israel Finkelstein – Tel Aviv University (Archaeology)
  • Prof. Eli Piasetzky – Tel Aviv University (Physics)
  • Dr. Arie Shaus – Harvard Medical School
  • Dr. Barak Sober – Duke (Rhodes iID)
  • Mrs. Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin – Tel-Aviv University (Math) + Duke (Rhodes iID)


  • Shaus, A., Gerber, Y., Faigenbaum-Golovin, S., Sober, B., Piasetzky, E., & Finkelstein, I. (2020). Forensic document examination and algorithmic handwriting analysis of Judahite biblical period inscriptions reveal significant literacy level. Plos one, 15(9), e0237962.‏
  • Faigenbaum-Golovin, S., Shaus, A., Sober, B., Turkel, E., Piasetzky, E., & Finkelstein, I. (2020). Algorithmic handwriting analysis of the Samaria inscriptions illuminates bureaucratic apparatus in biblical Israel. PloS one, 15(1), e0227452.‏
  • Mendel-Geberovich, A., Faigenbaum-Golovin, S., Shaus, A., Sober, B., Cordonsky, M., Piasetzky, E., ... & Milevski, I. (2019). A renewed reading of Hebrew ostraca from Cave A-2 at Ramat Beit Shemesh (Nahal Yarmut), based on multispectral imaging. Vetus Testamentum, 69(4-5), 682-701.‏
  • Shaus, A., Sober, B., Tzang, O., Ioffe, Z., Cheshnovsky, O., Finkelstein, I., & Piasetzky, E. (2019). Raman Binary Mapping of Iron Age Ostracon in an Unknown Material Composition and High‐Fluorescence Setting—A Proof of Concept. Archaeometry, 61(2), 459-469.‏