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Researchers from Tel Aviv University recently published an article entitled, “Algorithmic handwriting analysis of the Samaria inscriptions illuminates bureaucratic apparatus in biblical Israel,” in the journal PLOS ONE. In their study, scholars performed a computer analysis of the handwriting on the Samaria Ostraca involving an algorithm to estimate the number of scribes who wrote them. The Samaria Ostraca are a group of 8th-century BC, paleo-Hebrew ink inscriptions on clay sherds that were discovered in 1910 at Sebestia, Nablus, the site of Samaria, the ancient capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. Researchers used a three-step process, which involved restoring the characters on the grayscale images of the ostraca using computerization, analysing the features of the characters, such as their overall shape and angles between strokes, and finally testing to see whether any two given inscriptions were written by the same author. In their article, the authors conclude that all of the 31 inscriptions studied were likely written by two people, probably scribes who worked for King Jeroboam II, son of Jehoash. By comparing this study with tests, they previously did on the Arad Ostraca (from the 6th century BC), the authors speculate that literacy in Israel in the 8th century BC was limited, and possibly restricted to the royal courts. A word of caution regarding their interpretation of the data is in order. More than half of the 293 legible characters that were compared could not be used due to insufficient letter statistics. It would appear to be a stretch in logic to make a gross generalization about the literacy of the northern Kingdom as a whole based on the limited reading of a limited number of ostraca from one site. Anything beyond the conclusion that two scribes likely wrote the 31 ostraca studied is a stretch. Still, the use of computerization and statistical algorithms to analyze ancient ostraca is another example of the way technology is shaping the future of archaeology.





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