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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.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Scientists Discover a Mysterious Void in the Great Pyramid of Giza
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The Great Pyramid of Giza, the largest in all of Egypt, was built more than 4500 years ago as the final resting place of the 4th Dynasty pharaoh Khufu (a.k.a. Cheops), who reigned from 2509 to 2483 BCE. Modern Egyptologists have been excavating and studying it for more than a century, but it's still full of mysteries that have yet to be fully solved. The latest discovery, detailed in a new paper in the journal Nature, reveals a hidden void located with the help of particle physics. This is the first time a new inner structure has been located in the pyramid since the 19th century.

The ScanPyramids project, an international endeavor launched in 2015, has been using noninvasive scanning technology like laser imaging to understand Egypt's Old Kingdom pyramids. This discovery was made using muon tomography, a technique that generates 3D images from muons, a by-product of cosmic rays that can pass through stone better than similar technology based on x-rays, like CT scans. (Muon tomography is currently used to scan shipping containers for smuggled goods and image nuclear reactor cores.)

The ScanPyramids team works inside Khufu's Pyramid
ScanPyramids

The newly discovered void is at least 100 feet long and bears a structural resemblance to the section directly below it: the pyramid's Grand Gallery, a long, 26-foot-high inner area of the pyramid that feels like a "very big cathedral at the center of the monument," as engineer and ScanPyramids co-founder Mehdi Tayoubi said in a press briefing. Its size and shape were confirmed by three different muon tomography techniques.

They aren't sure what it would have been used for yet or why it exists, or even if it's one structure or multiple structures together. It could be a horizontal structure, or it could have an incline. In short, there's a lot more to learn about it.

In the past few years, technology has allowed researchers to access parts of the Great Pyramid never seen before. Several robots sent into the tunnels since the '90s have brought back images of previously unseen areas. Almost immediately after starting to examine the Great Pyramid with thermal imaging in 2015, the researchers discovered that some of the limestone structure was hotter than other parts, indicating internal air currents moving through hidden chambers. In 2016, muon imaging indicated that there was at least one previously unknown void near the north face of Khufu's pyramid, though the researchers couldn't identify where exactly it was or what it looked like. Now, we know its basic structure.

A rendering shows internal chambers within the Great Pyramid and the approximate structure of the newly discovered void.
ScanPyramids

"These results constitute a breakthrough for the understanding of Khufu's Pyramid and its internal structure," the ScanPyramids team writes in Nature. "While there is currently no information about the role of this void, these findings show how modern particle physics can shed new light on the world's archaeological heritage."

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travel
For the First Time in 40 Years, Rome's Colosseum Will Open Its Top Floor to the Public
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The Colosseum’s nosebleed seats likely didn’t provide plebeians with great views of gladiatorial contests and other garish spectacles. But starting in November, they’ll give modern-day tourists a bird's-eye look at one of the world’s most famous ancient wonders, according to The Telegraph.

The tiered amphitheater’s fifth and final level will be opened up to visitors for the first time in several decades, following a multi-year effort to clean, strengthen, and restore the crumbling attraction. Tour guides will lead groups of up to 25 people to the stadium’s far-flung reaches, and through a connecting corridor that’s never been opened to the public. (It contains the vestiges of six Roman toilets, according to The Local.) At the summit, which hovers around 130 feet above the gladiator pit below, tourists will get a rare glimpse at the stadium’s sloping galleries, and of the nearby Forum and Palatine Hill.

In ancient Rome, the Colosseum’s best seats were marble benches that lined the amphitheater’s bottom level. These were reserved for senators, emperors, and other important parties. Imperial functionaries occupied the second level, followed by middle-class spectators, who sat behind them. Traders, merchants, and shopkeepers enjoyed the show from the fourth row, and the very top reaches were left to commoners, who had to clamber over steep stairs and through dark tunnels to reach their sky-high perches.

Beginning November 1, 2017, visitors will be able to book guided trips to the Colosseum’s top levels. Reservations are required, and the tour will cost around $11, on top of the normal $14 admission cost. (Gladiator fights, thankfully, are not included.)

[h/t The Telegraph]

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