New find may be “missing link” in alphabet’s origins
A newly published inscription from Tel Lachish in southern Israel is the earliest alphabetic writing discovered in the southern Levant. The fragmentary inscription features a mere handful of letters inscribed on a tiny pottery sherd, measuring just 4 by 3.5 cm. The sherd is dated by radiocarbon to the 15th century B.C.E., or the first part of the Late Bronze Age.
Alphabetic writing was formerly thought not to have appeared in the southern Levant until the end of the Late Bronze Age, around the 13th century B.C.E. By contrast, the earliest alphabetic inscriptions from the Near East—the Proto-Sinaitic texts discovered in the ancient Egyptian turquoise mines of Serabit el-Khadem in Sinai—are generally dated to the 19th century B.C.E., more than half a millennium earlier. The new inscription from Lachish helps fill in this chronological gap, providing a critical “missing link” in our understanding of how the alphabet evolved and spread out from Egypt to other parts of the ancient world.
The earlier Proto-Sinaitic texts, which are thought to have been written by Canaanite workers,* adapted Egyptian hieroglyphs to serve as written symbols for distinct alphabetic sounds. The letters in the new Lachish inscription represent a more evolved form of the same early alphabetic script. Initial readings of the two-line inscription have identified the letters ‘ayin, bet, dalet (‘abd = “servant”); most likely the first part of a Canaanite personal name expressing servitude to a god. The second line features the letters nun, pe, and tav, which could be the word for “honey” or “nectar” (Hebrew nophet).
The Lachish inscription, first published in the journal Antiquity last week, was discovered in 2018 by a team of Austrian and Israeli archaeologists excavating at the famous biblical site. The inscribed sherd was found among burnt soil and debris from a large monumental building associated with the site’s Late Bronze Age fortifications. Material from the surrounding burnt layer was dated by radiocarbon to the mid-15th century B.C.E., providing a secure date for the inscription.
The inscription’s early date suggests that the alphabet likely spread from Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period (17th–16th centuries B.C.E.), when Egypt was ruled by the so-called “Hyksos” kings, who were of “Asiatic” or Canaanite descent. This period may have witnessed more frequent social and commercial interaction between Egypt and Canaan, which would have included the exchange of new ideas and concepts, including the adoption within Canaan of an alphabetic script derived from hieroglyphs.
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Who Really Invented the Alphabet: illiterate Miners or Educated Sophisticates? In a landmark article in the March/April 2010 issue of BAR, Orly Goldwasser, professor of Egyptology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, explained how the very first alphabet, from which all other alphabets developed, was invented by illiterate Canaanite miners in the turquoise mines of Serabit el-Khadem in the Sinai peninsula…. But Goldwasser did not convince everyone. Anson Rainey, who had been emeritus professor of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures and Semitic Languages at Tel Aviv University, promptly responded to the article with his doubts that this watershed moment in human culture had been brought about by illiterate miners.
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