• University of Haifa, Israel 
  • Dr. Gad Barnea (Co-Principal Investigator): Lecturer at the Department of Jewish history and Biblical Studies, University of Haifa/Israel and Research fellow at the École biblique de Jerusalem
  • Prof. Dr. Christopher A. Rollston, Project board member, Professor of Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures George Washington University.
  • Dr. Dalit Regev, Project board member for the “Maresha-Corpus” and the “Mt. Gerizim Inscriptions” – Israeli Antiquities Authority.
  • Prof. Dr. Roded Sharan and Rami Nasser, Project board member for Artificial Intelligence and Machine-learning – School of Computer Science, Tel-Aviv University.

Advanced Technologies for the Epigraphy of Judaism under the Achaemenid Empire

Internationales Forschungsprojekt

Prof. Dr. Benedikt Hensel, Universty of Oldenburg

Dr. Gad Barnea, University of Haifa 

(Elephatine ostracon BM 45035. License: Wiki commons) 


The recognition of the central importance of the Achaemenid period for the study of Judaism, has only recently come to the forefront of scholarly attention. This realization is the product of concurrent advancements in multiple disciplines such as literary history (especially redaction history), philology, religious and social history, and Near Eastern archaeology (specifically the archaeology of the Southern Levant)—combined with a fruitful dialogue with scholars of Iranian studies—all confirming the Achaemenid period as a watershed period in the evolution of early Judaism (also known as Yahwism). Fueling all of these advancements is the significant progress made in the collection and analysis of epigraphic evidence over this time period, which provides first-hand, direct and unfiltered access to the daily lives of early Jewish communities—from Egypt through Palestine to Babylonia—documenting the cultural, cultic and geopolitical contexts in which they live. This early and unmediated witness to Jewish life in the Second Temple period is unequalled in antiquity and should be considered on par with the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  

That being said, the field of Achaemenid-era Jewish epigraphy, undergirding this field of study requires a staggering amount of interdisciplinary work and access to complex corpora of data. It requires advanced technological analysis of the original documents (including multispectral, infra-red imagine and material analysis, sometimes on a microscopic level) combined with philological work that requires not only intimate familiarity with the so-called Imperial Aramaic, but also with local dialects, idioms and loanwords across languages, familiarity with ethnic backgrounds, cultic, administrative and legal customs and historical events.

Given the complexity of this undertaking, the proposed project brings together practitioners of digital-humanities, artificial-intelligence specialists, expert-epigraphers, biblical scholars, Jewish history researchers, philologists, Iranists, and archeologists aiming to develop and implement new work standards and advanced technological tools for the analysis, documentation and critical publication of the corpus of Jewish documents from the Achaemenid period (6th to 4th century BCE).


The  project therefore fills a number of crucial desiderata in field of epigraphy in general and the study of ancient Judaism specifically. For the first time, a complete and standardized recording of the dataset of epigraphic evidence for Jewish documents from the Achaemenid period will be made available to the scientific community. The solution is designed around four pillars:

  • The digitization of all relevant epigraphic findings (especially 3D scans and multispectral as well as infrared imaging).
  • The development of a new, reliable and transparent standard for digital epigraphic publication.
  • The creation of a powerful database, which will for the first time make the findings accessible to a worldwide research community.
  • EpigraphyGPT: a groundbreaking Generative pre-trained transformers (GPT) engine for epigraphy trained on a broad set of philological data. It’s core component is a Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers (BERT) language model for Imperial Aramaic to which will be added models trained contextually on related textual data such as various philological corpora. These will help the epigrapher discover interconnections between epigraphic data and metadata (it will answer epigraphic research questions such as probable textual reconstruction, dating of texts, dialects, grammatical options, relationships between various documents, etc.).

The epigraphic dataset of the Achaemenid period inscriptions in question is huge, and includes more than 3,500 inscriptions, ostraca, papyri, coin inscriptions, monumental inscriptions, and bullae - primarily in Aramaic, with some documents in Hebrew and Greek. Roughly one-third of the proposed project covers previously unpublished inscriptions (approximately 1.300 units). The script of the inscriptions varies for the Aramaic and Hebrew inscriptions between Aramaic square script (imperial Aramaic), monumental script, and even the so-called mixed script, which was not widespread in this period. Some use an archaizing form of Hebrew script, known as paleo-Hebrew.

Building on Porten and Yardeni’s groundbreaking work on the Egyptian and Idumean documents—and expanding the geographical reach while limiting it diachronically to the Achaemenid era—the proposed project will offer an entirely interactive and scientifically-backed online open-access platform for the study of epigraphic data. Recent advances in imaging and digitizing technology solutions such as powerful IR-capable handheld 3D scanners, image and text recognition provide us with advanced tools to handle this amount of new information. The advanced AI capabilities including EpigraphyGPT will include a new BERT-based trained model for the linguistic and contextual field in which Jewish epigraphy in the Achaemenid period thrived. Additionally, information processing and semantic database structures, morphological parsing tools, analysis and application of various material traits in the documents will be used to provide the full picture of a given document’s epigraphic context.


(Stand: 23.11.2023)  | 
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