The Fortress of Arad and Its Enlightening Ostraca


Hebrew Ostraca from Arad – the Institute of Archaeology, Tel Aviv University, and the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Ancient texts can  tell us a lot about the sites in which they are discovered. Upon their discovery, the ostraca of Tell Arad proved to be exceptionally informative as to how the fortress of Arad operated. More recently, according to Israel Finkelstein and others researchers believe that the Hebrew texts could give us insight into Judahite period literacy and what this could mean for the compilation of  biblical texts.

Tell Arad is situated on the southern slope of the Judaean Hills, facing the Beersheba valley,a way station between Arabia, the northern highland of Judah, and the western coastal plain. The site consists of a mound – a crater formed by horseshoe hills. This crater was useful for collecting run-off water if one were to dam the opening. The earliest occupation of Arad dates to the Chalcolithic period. In 1962 the site was jointly excavated by Ruth Amiran and Yohanan Aharoni. Once evidence of occupation was uncovered, Aharoni conducted an excavation of the fortress mound.

Arad had numerous forts throughout the Iron Age. Aharoni uncovered 12 strata and his first fort discovery was uncovered in a stratum dating to the Hellenistic period. The site was then abandoned for 100 years  Before it  was rebuilt during the Persian period (538-323 B.C.E.), This Persian period reoccupation gave Aharoni much to chew on. It was characterized by storage and refuse pits; inside one of these storage pits were 85 Aramaic ostraca. During the Persian period, the Negeb was under the control of the Arabian king of Kedar who had supported Cambyses during his invasion of Egypt. The Arabian king earned a special status and Arad was used as a supply point for grain. The ostraca in Aramaic show grain distribution to caravans and give evidence of the military surveillance that was maintained by patrols during this period.

We know very little about this site from outside sources – it is mentioned only a few times in the Bible. So when Aharoni excavated Stratum VII, the earlier Judahite occupation level, he was excited to discover more texts, this time written in Hebrew.

Northern Negev. Google images.

Northern Negev. Google images.

These letters were a part of what Aharoni described as a “rich hoard” of epigraphic finds of Hebrew ostraca. They were discovered across 6 strata, spanning approximately 350 years. This discovery was made up of political, administrative, and cultic documents. He found seals and letters belonging to Elyashib, son of Eshiyahu. We learn that Elyashib was a quartermaster at the fort. Seventeen of these letters were issuances of supplies from local stores at Arad and the recipients of these specific letters were administrative or commercial units that were passing by Arad on their way to somewhere else.

Aharoni believed it shows evidence of cursive Hebrew script from as early as the time of the United Monarchy, traditionally dated around 1050-930 B.C.E. The palaeography is generally that of biblical Hebrew prose  and Aharoni believed that the homogeneity of it testifies to a mature scribal “school.” The ostraca also signify the widespread practice of using potsherds for official documents – there is even evidence of them being used by the king of Judah when writing to his subordinates!

According to these texts the commander of Arad was in a position of wide authority and occasionally received direct correspondence from the king. Geographical names mentioned on the ostraca can give us hints as to the commander’s sphere of influence, such as Beersheba in the west and Qinah in the east. Among other duties he was in charge of the issuance of supplies and rations to groups stopping over at the fort. To receive such goods as wine, oil, and grain, units and individuals travelling through had “vouchers” in the form of letters to the local commander itemizing supplies. A date of issuance was recorded on the same sherd when the transaction was completed and the records were kept at Arad. The fort itself received supplies from the southern Hill Country.


Tel Arad Fortress. Google images.

Some ostraca from Stratum VIII and earlier deal with temple administration. The temple ceased to exist after this period but during its existence it housed storerooms containing documents. A room beside the “Holy of Holies” in particular housed 8 texts belonging to a distinct group. Each ostraca was inscribed with a single name (either an individual or a family). Aharoni saw this as ostraca used for casting lots for assigning temple duties. In Stratum VI, long after the temple had disappeared, Aharoni found an ostracon that alluded to the “House of Yahweh” in reference to the temple of Jerusalem. This points to a potential connection between the officials at Arad and the religious centre in Jerusalem.

The large amount of textual finds is a bit of a surprise since not every Judahite fort uncovered has given us quite so much writing and not all of it tends to be in a good state of preservation. One reason for this is that  Arad is one of few sites whose fortress was entirely excavated; there is no telling how much is left to discover at sites that are only partially excavated (Donate to your alumni archaeology departments, people!) So how is this preservation of ostraca made possible? A dry climate better preserves ink left on the potsherds. In addition to this, Aharoni had the foresight to come up with a method of preservation by carefully examining each sherd before scrubbing it with a brush.

Of course, the Hebrew inscriptions from Arad were not just significant For the facts they contain about the commercial activities at the site. More recently, scholars such as Israel Finkelstein and Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin have come up with an algorithm for identifying some of the authors of these inscriptions. Through this identification they hoped to shed light on the dissemination of writing and from that, the spread of literacy in Judah. To do this, they developed new methods for image processing, document analysis, and machine learning algorithms to identify the minimal number of authors in a given group of texts. They analyzed 16 ostraca and managed to identify the military ranks of the authors to highlight the spread of literacy within the army:

(i) the King of Judah (ii) an unnamed military commander (iii) Malkiyahu, the commander of the Arad fortress (iv) Eliashib, the quartermaster (v) Eliashib’s subordinate. The authors argue that the entire army apparatus was literate in the sense of its ability to communicate in writing. They then take the minimum of 6 authors in 16 ostraca to extrapolate all of Arad and other fortresses, to central administrative towns, and to Jerusalem to determine that a significant number of literate individuals existed around 600 B.C.E. in Judah. This, the authors claim, provides a possible stage setting for the compilation of certain literary works of the Bible, such as Deuteronomy. However, it is difficult to say that those who wrote for the practical reason of communication may also have composed literary works and scholars have yet to provide further evidence of this connection. Still, this new argument helps highlight how the texts of Arad continue to be invaluable to the study of ancient Palestine and how scholars are combining them with innovative techniques to answer broader questions.

For more information, please see:

Faigenbaum-Golovin, Shira et al. “Algorithmic Handwriting Analysis of Judah’s Military Correspondence Sheds Light on Composition of Biblical Texts.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113, no. 17 (April 2016): 4664-4669.

Herzog, Zeʾev, Aharoni Miriam, Rainey Anson F., and Moshkovitz Shmuel. “The Israelite Fortress at Arad.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 254 (1984): 1-34.

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