Turquoise Miners Did Not Invent the Alphabet
Thank you for the beautifully illustrated article on the invention of the alphabet by Orly Goldwasser (“How the Alphabet Was Born from Hieroglyphs,” BAR, March/April 2010). Orly’s main thesis is that the alphabet was invented at Serabit el-Khadem by Canaanites illiterate in hieroglyphics. In a footnote, she refers to the recent monograph by Gordon H. Hamilton, The Origins of the West Semitic Alphabet in Egyptian Scripts, Catholic Biblical Quarterly Monograph Series 40 (2006) and also to my review of Hamilton’s work in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 354 (May, 2009). However, she seems not to have digested the main theme, namely that the alphabet was invented by highly sophisticated Northwest Semites who knew not only hieroglyphics but probably also hieratic, the cursive script generally used by Egyptians at that time. The cultural objects (hieroglyphic signs) selected for the consonants of the alphabet were all from sophisticated life; none was from the life of pastoral nomads or mining laborers.
Though no examples of alphabetic writing have been found at Tell Daba, a major site on the eastern branch of the Nile in the delta, neither were hieratic texts on papyrus found there. It should be obvious that the alphabet was designed to be written on papyrus. It is unfortunate that the alphabetic inscriptions that have survived are only on rocky surfaces in Sinai, on ceramic vessels or on fragments of such vessels. But the same can be said of the later “Phoenician” version of that alphabet. We have examples from burial coffins, statues, on a stone plaque, ostraca and inscriptions on metal and other vessels. Papyrus examples, however, are quite rare (for example, the Phoenician letter of one woman to her “sister” that was found in Saqqara, Egypt).
It is obvious that the original pictorial form of the alphabet must have been written on dozens, hundreds, of papyrus sheets that have not survived. The miners who inscribed their thoughts on the walls of the turquoise mines or on the cliff above the smelting camp at Bir Nasib, were hardly the inventors of the alphabet.
Anson F. Rainey
Emeritus Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures and Semitic Linguistics
Tel Aviv University