An Early Alphabetic Text from Beth Shemesh

Mysterious inscription a simple scribal exercise?

early alphabetic text

The early alphabetic text from Beth Shemesh. Courtesy Fossé et al.

An early alphabetic text discovered at Beth Shemesh in central Israel has drawn the attention of Assyriologists and archaeologists for nearly a century. Although the roughly 3,300-year-old tablet is not the oldest alphabetic text discovered in Israel, it is still incredibly rare, as it was written in cuneiform. Publishing in the journal Tel Aviv, archaeologists from Ben-Gurion University set out to better understand the Beth Shemesh tablet, suggesting it could have been the school exercise of a young scribe.

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An Early Alphabetic Scribe at Beth Shemesh

While cuneiform was the most widespread script of the time, the Beth Shemesh tablet was different than the typical logo-syllabic cuneiform used for writing Akkadian or Hittite. Instead, it was alphabetic cuneiform, an offshoot of the cuneiform script developed around a century earlier in the ancient city of Ugarit, located about 270 miles to the north. Measuring roughly 6 by 2 inches, the Beth Shemesh tablet is the earliest example of alphabetic cuneiform found in the southern Levant, having been written at a time when the proto-Canaanite script that would birth the modern alphabet was still taking hold.

Although we might expect the tablet to contain correspondence between cities or possibly some important literary text, the actual purpose of the Beth Shemesh tablet is something far more mundane. It is an abecedary—an ordered list of letters used to learn one’s ABCs. Of course, it took years for scholars to crack the mystery and, for a while, some even thought it could be an early example of a South Semitic script. Recent studies, however, have shown that it is nearly identical to another abecedary discovered at Ugarit, although the Beth Shemesh tablet appears to have been written by a less experienced scribe.


Hand copy of the inscription. Courtesy Fossé et al.

But none of this solved the question of how the tablet ended up at Beth Shemesh. Enter the study by the Ben-Gurion team. While previous studies had looked mainly at the text of the inscription itself, the Ben-Gurion team took another path. They examined the tablet’s material and composition. Analyzing the clay of the tablet, they were able to pinpoint its origin to somewhere near Beth Shemesh. While this might not seem very surprising, it turned out to be deeply significant, as it provided unique evidence of an alphabetic cuneiform scribal school outside of Ugarit.

Noting the tablet’s misshapen form, several scribal emendations, and even a child’s fingerprint impressed in the clay, the team concluded the tablet must have been a young scribe’s school exercise. As Jonathan Yogev, an expert in Ugaritic, told Haaretz, “It’s probably a dictation exercise. The teacher stands next to you and dictates the letters: ‘A, B, C, R, V,’ and sometimes he repeats ‘R, R, R,’ especially if you make a mistake.” Interestingly, another unique aspect of the Beth Shemesh tablet is that it was written right to left, as opposed to the more typical left to right of cuneiform, putting it more in line with the region’s proto-Canaanite script.

So why was there a scribal student in Beth Shemesh practicing what appears to be a Ugaritic abecedary? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is less clear. Perhaps it was intended to teach the student to correspond with cities outside of the region, or perhaps it hints at some internal Canaanite communication. Regardless, it certainly tells us that the history of the alphabet’s development in the southern Levant was less univocal than it sometimes appears.

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Oldest Canaanite Sentence Found

What Is Akkadian?

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

How the Alphabet Was Born from Hieroglyphs

Texts from Ugarit Solve Biblical Puzzles

The Tablets from Ugarit and Their Importance for Biblical Studies

Breaking the Missing Link

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

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