Wednesday, April 22, 2015

New technology for reading old ostraca

TECHNOLOGY WATCH: A high-tech quest to unlock the secrets of ancient Israelite letters. How upstart mathematicians and archaeologists are revealing the secrets of letters penned more than 2,500 years ago – and finding clues about when the Bible was written. (Ariel David, Haaretz).
What do 2,600-year-old administrative documents written on potsherds have to do with computer algorithms? And what can routine supply requisitions and urgent requests for reinforcements from a long-gone army tell us about the origins of the Bible?

A maverick team of mathematicians, physicists and archaeologists at Tel Aviv University is on a high-tech quest to answer those questions by unlocking the secrets of the few written documents from the First Temple period that have survived to this day.

The new techniques the researchers developed may not only revolutionize the way scholars study ancient inscriptions, but also paint a better picture of the level of sophistication and literacy in the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Ultimately, their work could help shed light on the tantalizing question of when biblical texts were first put in writing.

The texts under analysis are the Iron Age II ostraca from Samaria, Lachish, and Arad. It mentions a fourth group of Judahite texts, but I'm not sure what is in mind, unless it be the single, but very important, ostracon from Yavneh Yam (Mesad Hashavyahu). And there are other individual ostraca. One of the most exciting things noted in the article is that the new technology has accidentally detected and recovered several new lines of text (still being deciphered) on the back of one of these well-known ostraca.

Joseph Lauer has noted an article that may be related: abstract here; pdf file of the whole article here.

Bit by bit, a letter at a time, whatever it takes. Until we're done.