Copper and the History of the Alphabet in Ancient Egypt

New excavation adds context for the earliest alphabetic writing

history of alphabet in ancient Egypt illuminated at 4,000-year-old mining site

This nearly 4,000-year-old mining site and administrative center in southern Sinai may shed new light on the history of the alphabet.
Credit: Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities

Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities announced that an archaeological excavation at the site of Wadi al-Nasb in southern Sinai uncovered a 4,000-year-old administrative center. The site sheds light both on our understanding of the Egyptian administration during the Middle Kingdom (c. 2000–1760 B.C.E.) as well as the center’s possible connection to nearby Serabit el-Khadem, the turquoise mining site where the earliest-known alphabetic inscriptions were found.

According to the findings, the site of Wadi al-Nasb served as the base of operations for much of Egypt’s mining activities in the Sinai. Both copper and turquoise mines are located within a few miles of the site. The excavated building, which was nearly 2,500 square feet, was strategically located near the area’s main water source. In addition to being an administrative center, the building was the largest ancient Egyptian copper smelting facility in the Sinai and one of the main smelting sites in the entire eastern Mediterranean. Beyond its importance for understanding ancient Egyptian mining operations, however, the site also has the potential to reveal more about Serabit el-Khadem and the history of the alphabet in ancient Egypt.

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Serabit el-Khadem was an ancient Egyptian turquoise mine with a monumental temple dedicated to the goddess Hathor. Excavations at the site in the early 20th century also produced evidence of the earliest-known alphabetic script—called Proto-Sinaitic by scholars—that would later give rise to the Hebrew alphabet and eventually the Latin alphabet widely used today. The Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions, generally dated to the 19th century B.C.E., are believed to have been written by Canaanite laborers who, while working the mines, modified Egyptian hieroglyphs to form their own alphabet. The new findings at Wadi al-Nasb provide a broader context for the origins of the alphabet in ancient Egypt, as the administrative center would have been routinely involved with the activities and workers at the turquoise mines at Serabit el-Khadem.

alphabet in ancient Egypt article picture of Jerubbaal inscription

Twelfth-century B.C.E. inscription from the site of Khirbet al-Ra‘i in Israel that bears the name Jerubbaal.
Credit: Nathan Steinmeyer

Although many questions about the origins and development of the alphabet remain, new finds from Egypt and Israel are continuing to add pieces to the puzzle. Within the past few years, new inscriptions have been found at sites like Lachish and Khirbet al-Ra‘i. Other early alphabetic inscriptions have been found at Jerusalem, Tel Zayit, Khirbet Qeiyafa, and elsewhere.

Read more about alphabets in Bible History Daily:

Early Alphabetic Writing Found at Lachish

The Phoenician Alphabet in Archaeology

Jerusalem’s Earliest Alphabetic Text

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


Members, read  Writing and Literacy in the Biblical World, in the BAS Library.

Reading and writing are integral parts of our everyday lives, but this was not true for everyone in the Biblical era. How did the alphabet develop in the Holy Land, and who could read it? Inscriptions teach us about the culture, economy and literary traditions of the ancient occupants of archaeological sites. What role did texts play in their contemporaneous societies? Who could read them? What is the likelihood that eyewitness records of Jesus’ deeds could have been recorded? Read this collection of 5 articles from the BAS Library.

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