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Kreecher via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

More People Were Literate in Ancient Judah Than We Knew

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Kreecher via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When was the Hebrew Bible written? That question has long been the subject of heated debate, largely because of the fragmentary nature of the historical record. Piecing together the ancient history of the Hebrew-speaking peoples revolves around a limited number of inscriptions and physical artifacts, along with written accounts from neighboring civilizations. Of course, there are also the Biblical texts themselves, but the oldest of these, found among the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, date back only to the 3rd century BCE.

Now, a cross-disciplinary team of nine Israeli scientists from Tel Aviv University has taken a fresh look at a collection of inscriptions from circa 600 BCE, and—with the help of a machine-learning computer algorithm—has concluded that literacy was already on the rise in the ancient Kingdom of Judah (a.k.a. Judea) in the years prior to the Babylonian conquest in 587 BCE. And that, they argue, points to an “educational infrastructure” that would have made the writing of the Biblical texts possible. Their study was published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

The computer program studied the inscriptions from 16 pottery fragments recovered at Arad, a remote desert fortress about 20 miles south of Jerusalem, the capital of the kingdom. The analysis of the handwriting showed that at least six different writers penned the inscriptions, which contain instructions for the movements of troops and the distribution of supplies, including wine, oil, and flour. They’re addressed to someone named “Eliashib,” believed to have been the quartermaster of the fortress, and to his assistant.

Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin et al. in PNAS

“Until now, there was no conclusive empirical evidence about levels of literacy [in Judah],” Arie Shaus, a Ph.D. student in applied mathematics at Tel Aviv University and one of the lead authors of the study, tells mental_floss. Now there’s “very good evidence that hundreds of people, maybe more, could read and write.”

What's unclear, though, is whether reading and writing was restricted to a small group of elites—say, a handful of priests and scribes, perhaps in Jerusalem—or was more widespread. Shaus suggests it was quite common in the military. “We can now say that writing is everywhere, from the upper echelons of the Judahite army, down to the level of vice-quartermaster of some remote, isolated fort,” he says.

A chart depicting the hierarchy of the correspondents in the Arad inscriptions. Image credit: Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin et al. in PNAS

While many previous studies have attempted to date the various Biblical texts directly, this study turns the problem on its head, Shaus explains: “Instead of asking when were the texts written, you ask when would it have been possible for such texts to have been written.”

Christopher Rollston, an expert on ancient Semitic languages and literature at George Washington University, describes the technique used in the study as “very promising.”

“Determining the number of writers is really useful,” he tells mental_floss. Rollston, who was not involved in the current study, notes that scholars have long attempted such estimates, using various “analogue” methods, but this study provides an “empirical foundation.”

Rollston cautions, however, against assuming that the general population of Judah could read and write. “Literacy in ancient Israel and Judah was probably 15 or 20 percent of the population, at most,” he says.

According to the Bible, a unified Hebrew-speaking kingdom flourished under King David and his son, Solomon; historians estimate that their reigns spanned roughly 1000 to 920 BCE, when the kingdom was divided into Israel, in the north, and Judah, in the south. The northern kingdom eventually fell to the Assyrians, the southern kingdom to the Babylonians. Although Hebrew inscriptions dating back to the 10th century BCE have been found, the dates associated with the Biblical texts have always been the subject of debate. The Book of Deuteronomy, for example, is a complex work unlikely to have been composed until literacy was fairly widespread, historians believe.

This research “emphasizes the political and military infrastructure that allows for the spread of writing literacy across different social classes,” William Schniedewind, an expert on Biblical studies and Semitic languages at UCLA, tells mental_floss. “That’s the important thing here—it’s not just that you have writing; it’s that you have it across a variety of social classes, so that it can be socially significant.” Schniedewind says that the Tel Aviv study supports the thesis of his book How the Bible Became a Book, published in 2004.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
8 New Ancient Ships Found at the 'Shipwreck Capital of the World'
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The number of wrecks discovered at the "shipwreck capital of the world" continues to grow. According to Haaretz, the latest find adds eight new wreck discoveries, bringing the total up to 53 sunken ships in a 17-mile stretch off the coast of Fourni, Greece.

As Mental Floss reported, in 2015 archaeologists working off the coast of Fourni identified 22 shipwrecks dating back to 700 BCE—already an historic find. But additional dives conducted by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and the RPM Nautical Foundation have continued to yield new discoveries. Nine months later, in June 2016, the Fourni Underwater survey turned up 23 more ancient, Medieval, and post-Medieval shipwrecks in the area with the help of local fishermen and sponge divers. The latest expedition took place in June 2017.

Divers inspect and survey an ancient amphora near the shipwreck site.

The Fourni archipelago, consisting of 13 tiny islands, never hosted a sizable town, but it was an important stopping point for shipping routes between the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea, and on to Cyprus, the Levant, and Egypt. The area may have been a hotspot for ships seeking safe harbor from violent storms in that part of the Aegean Sea, as Peter Campbell of the RPM Nautical Foundation told Haaretz. It wasn’t an entirely safe destination for merchant ships, though; it was also a pirate haven.

Some of the latest wrecks found include a ship from the Greek Classical Period—around 500 BCE to 320 BCE—carrying Greek amphorae (ceramic jars), a Roman ship with origins in the Iberian Peninsula, and anchors dating back to the Archaic Period (800 to 479 BCE). Researchers found more stone, lead, and iron anchors all the way up to the Byzantine Empire, which lasted until the 15th century.

Two conservationists sit at a table working with shards of ancient pottery.

The ancient trade routes that crisscrossed the Mediterranean (and the dangers of ancient seafaring) have made the area a fertile ground for millennia-old shipwrecks even outside of Fourni. As recently as 2016, divers off the coast of Israel stumbled upon a 1600-year-old merchant ship filled with Roman artifacts. In 2015, Italian divers discovered the wreck of a 2000-year-old ship carrying terra cotta tiles in deep waters near Sardinia.

The Fourni project is still ongoing, and researchers plan to conduct a fourth season of underwater surveying in 2018. Once the project completes a full survey and documentation of the area, the researchers may consider excavating some of the wrecks.

[h/t Haaretz]

All photos by Vasilis Mentogianis courtesy the RPM Nautical Foundation

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J. P. Oleson
Time Has Only Strengthened These Ancient Roman Walls
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J. P. Oleson

Any seaside structure will erode and eventually crumble into the water below. That’s how things work. Or at least that’s how they usually work. Scientists say the ancient Romans figured out a way to build seawalls that actually got tougher over time. They published their findings in the journal American Mineralogist.

The walls’ astonishing durability is not, itself, news. In the 1st century CE, Pliny the Elder described the phenomenon in his Naturalis Historia, writing that the swell-battered concrete walls became "a single stone mass, impregnable to the waves and every day stronger."

We know that Roman concrete involved a mixture of volcanic ash, lime, seawater, and chunks of volcanic rock—and that combining these ingredients produces a pozzolanic chemical reaction that makes the concrete stronger. But modern cement involves a similar reaction, and our seawalls fall apart like anything else beneath the ocean's corrosive battering ram.

Something else was clearly going on.

To find out what it was, geologists examined samples from walls built between 55 BCE and 115 CE. They used high-powered microscopes and X-ray scanners to peer into the concrete's basic structure, and a technique called raman spectroscopy to identify its ingredients.

Microscope image of crystals in ancient Roman concrete.
Courtesy of Marie Jackson

Their results showed that the pozzolanic reaction during the walls' creation was just one stage of the concrete toughening process. The real magic happened once the walls were built, as they sat soaking in the sea. The saltwater did indeed corrode elements of the concrete—but in doing so, it made room for new crystals to grow, creating even stronger bonds.

"We're looking at a system that's contrary to everything one would not want in cement-based concrete," lead author Marie Jackson, of the University of Utah, said in a statement. It's one "that thrives in open chemical exchange with seawater."

The goal now, Jackson says, is to reproduce the precise recipe and toughen our own building materials. But that might be harder than it sounds.

"Romans were fortunate in the type of rock they had to work with," she says. "They observed that volcanic ash grew cements to produce the tuff. We don't have those rocks in a lot of the world, so there would have to be substitutions made."

We still have a lot to learn from the ancient walls and their long-gone architects. Jackson and her colleagues will continue to pore through Roman texts and the concrete itself, looking for clues to its extraordinary strength.

"The Romans were concerned with this," Jackson says. "If we're going to build in the sea, we should be concerned with it too."


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