Rainey’s Response

Who Really Invented the Alphabet—Illiterate Miners or Educated Sophisticates?

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In response to Orly Goldwasser’s “rebuttal” of my suggestions about the invention of the pictographic consonantal alphabet (“Turquoise Miners Did Not Invent the Alphabet”), BAR readers should consult Gordon H. Hamilton. The Origins of the West Semitic Alphabet in Egyptian Scripts (The Catholic Biblical Quarterly Monograph Series 40 [Washington, DC: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 2006]). Hamilton’s work should be studied in conjunction with my review in Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 354 (May, 2009), pp. 83–86.

When Hamilton refers to the objects chosen to represent the consonants, he recognizes that they were items known best to a sophisticated urbanite. The inventor of the pictographic alphabet was most likely an agent from the Levant, probably from Byblos (cuneiform Gubla, Hebrew Gəăal). He was working in the Egyptian delta, perhaps at Avaris or even at Memphis.

Goldwasser mentions the horned ox, alpu. That animal was essential to sedentary agriculture, a means of production controlled by the warrior elite of the Levantine kingdoms, as demonstrated by the story of Sinuhe. The ox had nothing to do with mining or with sheep herding.

When Goldwasser writes that the Phoenicians arrived in the 12th century B.C.E., she seems unaware of the fact that the residents of the Canaanite cities on the Lebanese coast continued to be Canaanites in the Iron Age. When the Greeks came into contact with them, they coined the name Phoenician, probably in relation to a Greek term for purple. Western scholars have adopted the Greek term though the natives did not (so we teach the “Phoenician” language, which is really Iron Age coastal Canaanite).

For more on Anson Rainey’s critiques and Orly Goldwasser’s responses, explore the Scholar’s Study: Who Really Invented the Alphabet—Illiterate Miners or Educated Sophisticates?

As for the Ugaritians, they did their writing on clay tablets in Mesopotamian cuneiform because they were in the sphere of the Hittite empire. When the pictographic alphabet became known to them, they devised their own set of cuneiform signs (only slightly resembling the original pictographs). But they did know the names of the original pictographs as demonstrated by the following broken cuneiform tablet found at Ugarit:

Note that the Ugarirtic alphabetic signs are matched with an Akkadian cuneiform sign that represents the beginning of the original name of the letter. I have matched them in turn with a table of the pictographic signs. Unfortunately, the tablet is broken at the bottom so signs in the middle of the alphabet are missing. But this tablet is testimony to the fact the Ugaritians had learned about the alphabet from the pictographic originals.

I never associated the invention of the alphabet with the Hyksos dynasties (XIVth and XVth). Our inventor was probably working in Egypt during the XIIth or perhaps the XIIIth Dyasties.

So who did do the writing at Serabit el-Khadem? The inscriptions refer to persons with the rank of rabbunâqibânîma, “chief of the miners.” One person signs his name: Ŝim‘amur’u, “Shim‘a the squire.” A squire was not only the assistant to a chariot warrior, he also had military rank, probably that of a sergeant.

It would have been those educated officers who had come to Serabit with the group of mining experts or laborers. Just like their Egyptian counterparts, they would have kept their records (duty rosters, payrolls, etc.) on papyrus that did not survive. The alphabet was not invented to be scratched on the walls of a cave.

During the Middle and Late Bronze Ages and during the Iron Age, there must have been thousands of records, letters, etc., written on papyrus in the cities and towns of the Levant, including ancient Israel and Judah. We are left only with the scraps: inscriptions on stone or pottery fragments. Rarely does a papyrus text survive the vicissitudes of time. Note the text from Wadi Muraba’at and the “Phoenician” letter (written by a woman) found at Saqqara.

Anson F. Rainey
Emeritus Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures and Semitic Linguistics
Tel Aviv University


Read “How the Alphabet Was Born from Hieroglyphs” by Orly Goldwasser as it appeared in the March/April 2010 issue of BAR.


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  1. spencer says

    The name “Sim amur u” seems to be “Shem of the Amuru’ a common Amorite name, found from Lebanon/Syria and Palestine (Canaan). He may have been educated but Sergeant doe not put him in the officer class – a Squire, possibly (as understood in the European sense) is a knight trainee, likely not of the lower class ( the word later referred to a local person of high standing. However, many people may have a “sophisticated” background, educated, and fallen into disgrace. A family scandal, a crime, a prison sentence, or one who has been sent into the boondocks to assist in the family business (trading in turquoise?). Such a person may have found a secret code allowing workers to relay messages to one another in a shorthand, and then he could have developed the alphabetic system. There is nothing in the records before this time about a Semitic script, writing on broken pottery or walls.

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