Data Dialogue: From Ink Traces on clay Sherds to the Literacy Rate in the Iron Age using Mathematical Tools

Data Dialogue


Dawn, Ariel


event sponsored by

Information Initiative at Duke (iiD) &

+DataScience (+DS), Center for Computational Humanities, Classical Studies, Computer Science, Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), Energy Initiative, Information Science + Studies (ISS), Mathematics, Social Science Research Institute (SSRI), and Statistical Science


Data Dialogues


Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin

Archaeology provides a unique opportunity to reconstruct the past and study human activity through the recovery and analysis of material culture. For instance, written material contains a lot of information, it tells a story, mentions historical events, or even describes the feelings of the person that composed the text. With the rise of Digital Humanities, additional tools became available to examine inscriptions and answer interesting historical questions. In this talk, we will address the question of how literate was the population in the Iron Age in Judah and Israel ca. 600 BCE by analyzing ancient ink on clay inscriptions. The solution we propose consists of several steps: (A) Acquiring better imagery of the inscriptions using multispectral and Raman techniques; (B) Analyzing the dominant elemental components of the ink using XRF (C) Restoring the letters of the texts via approximation of their strokes using splines; (D) Performing automatic handwriting analysis via statistical and machine learning tools; (E) Analyzing the historical implications of the results. We applied our methodology to two Iron Age corpora, written in ancient Hebrew. The first corpus was unearthed in an isolated military outpost of Arad in the Judah desert (dating to ca. 600 BCE), while the second one was found in Samaria, the capital of the kingdom of Israel (dating to the 8th century BCE). The results of this study provide empirical evidence regarding the literacy rates in the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel, with implications to the period of the possible composition of some of the Biblical texts. The data dialog, between the humanities and the hard sciences, enriches the knowledge and our understanding of historical events using digital tools. Short bio: Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin is a Phillip Griffiths Assistant Research Professor at Duke University's math department as well as at the Rhodes Interdisciplinary Initiative, working with Prof. Ingrid Daubechies. In 2021 Shira obtained her Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics from the Tel Aviv University, under the supervision of Prof. David Levin and Prof. Yoel Shkolnisky. Shira's Ph.D. dealt with approximation theory in high dimensional space. For the past decade, Shira was a researcher in the interdisciplinary project with the Archeological Department at Tel-Aviv University. Project site:


Humanities, Panel/Seminar/Colloquium, Research, and Technology