Kreecher via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Kreecher via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

More People Were Literate in Ancient Judah Than We Knew

Kreecher via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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.

Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

Big Questions
Why Don't Valentine Hearts Look Like Real Hearts?

Love is in the air this month, and images of two-lobed hearts are all over everything: candy, cards, decorations, you name it. That the heart is symbolic of love and passion isn't surprising—ancient Greek and Roman thinkers, including Aristotle, thought the organ was the center of all emotions. Why the heart symbol you see everywhere in February doesn't look anything like an actual human heart, though, is a little less clear.

The symbol goes at least as far back as the 1400s, when it appeared on European playing cards to mark one of the red suits, though it may even be older than that. The shape is pretty much a mystery, though. There are a few different hypotheses to explain it, but none of them have been confirmed.

One suggested origin for the symbol is that it comes from the ancient African city-state of Cyrene, whose merchants traded in the rare, and now extinct, plant silphium. The plant was used to season food, but doubled as a contraceptive. A silphium seedpod looks like a valentine's heart, so the shape became associated with sex, and then with love.

Another possibility is that the shape is a crude representation of a pubic mound, the vulva, a pair of breasts, buttocks, or a pair of testicles. It may even have come from a poor attempt at drawing an actual heart. A lousy artist, an inaccurate description of the subject, or a malformed model all could have led to that shape.

The Catholic church explains the symbol as coming from a vision that Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque had, where the "Sacred Heart of Jesus"—associated with love and devotion by Catholics—appeared in this shape surrounded by thorns. But Alacoque didn't have this vision until the late 1600s, well after the symbol was already documented. This makes it the unlikeliest of origin stories, but the church's frequent use of the shape was probably a driving factor in popularizing it as a symbol of love.

This story originally appeared in 2012.


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