Who Really Invented the Alphabet—Illiterate Miners or Educated Sophisticates?
“The alphabet was not invented to be scratched on the walls of a cave”—Anson Rainey
First, I would like to reiterate that Rainey’s main claim concerning the numerous lost papyri written in a “cursive” alphabet during the first part of the 2nd millennium is purely hypothetical. Not a single document, not a scrap of evidence for such script was ever found. Papyri of the Late Middle Kingdom and the Hyksos Period did survive in Egypt, but show only Egyptian texts written in good hieratic script. So regarding the current state of finds, Rainey’s theory is a mere assumption not based on a single document.
Second, Rainey disregards my detailed comparison of the alphabet letters in Sinai with specific Middle Egyptian hieroglyphs in Sinai, mainly from inscriptions by the mines and on the roads to the mines. Most conspicuous are the very unusual “square house” hieroglyphs from Sinai, unknown in other Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions from the Middle Kingdom.1
Rainey differs from my reconstruction in one main way. He believes the alphabet could have been invented only by an educated “agent.” He writes:
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…
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.
I believe that great minds may exist outside the institutional system and that it is possible that the alphabet was invented in Serabit, by illiterate Canaanite workers at the mines. Given the right timing and the right triggering situation, a genius, notwithstanding his social background, can make a great intellectual leap. I find the invention of the alphabet so important a case in the history of ideas, because it shows that being situated on the periphery of a society or a culture can be turned into an advantage, into a great intellectual triumph.2
A unique situation was created in Sinai where illiterates (surely not “primitive” or “less-advanced”) workers with strong Canaanite identity were put in unusual surroundings—extreme isolation for months, high remote mountain deserts, dangerous hard work. There was nothing around in the area to divert their attention besides hundreds of hieroglyphic pictures inscribed on the rocks. No town, no building, no roads, no distractions of civilization.
The Egyptian pictorial script was the necessary tool for the invention. The Egyptian signs presented the inventor with the “rough material” for his invention – the icons, the small pictures that he could easily recognize. Without this basic material, which he utilized in a completely innovative way, the invention would have probably not taken place.
Being illiterate was the necessary condition for the invention. If another solution were at hand, why go into this enormous intellectual effort? In this hypothesis, I differ from all other scholars. I believe that the fact that the inventor did not know any other script system, coupled with the strong religious urge to write, made the invention possible.
It is exactly the lack of any option, as well as the intellectual disposition to not be enchained by earlier solutions of “how to write,” that enabled the inventor to try to find a new, independent solution. He did not have to start completely from scratch. The hieroglyphs were around him. He chose a small group, but used it in a completely innovative way, hardly known before, acrophonically. He extracted the first sound of the Semitic name (his own language) of each picture he chose, a method practically unknown in the mainstream hieroglyphic system of the Middle Kingdom.
From this moment on, as a result of this intellectual breakthrough in the desert, the option to present the sounds of language in less than 30 signs and not by hundreds of signs, was introduced into the history of ideas. We call this system today “alphabet.”
The alphabet was the child of a spiritual need. What the miners wrote was no mere “scratching on a wall of a cave”. In their mind’s eyes, this “scratching” was everything. It created a bond of their names with their gods that would hopefully bless their work and protect their lives. It was a prayer. As Joseph Naveh puts it, “The vast majority of the ancient graffiti even those which contain only personal names, were actually prayers”3
The inventor was probably not close enough to the Egyptians (i.e. not important enough) to get the opportunity to learn from the Egyptian scribes to write his name. New archaeological research on the mountain conducted by Dominique Valbelle and Charles Bonnet uncovered the surrounding wall of the temple area. It is very possible that the average miner (besides the “bosses,” such as the “chief of miners”) had no access to the temple area, and did not stand in direct daily contact with too many Egyptians. And, indeed, almost all alphabetic inscriptions in Sinai were found in the mines, around the mines and on the roads leading to the mines. The distance between the mines area and the temple mound ranges from a few hundred meters to a few kilometers.
In the Ancient Near East, before the alphabet invention, there was no script system that was born without state backing. There was no script that was not a child of institutional needs. Rainey suggests here that groups of Canaanites caravaneers and miners used a script of their own during the Middle Bronze Age, in which they recorded their activities (only administration? also literature?). As far as we know they were not representative of any “Canaanite state.” Anyhow, in Canaan during this period, there was no such single state. Since the very beginning of history, the country was divided by many small, rival city-states. Scribes in those little states wrote in Akkadian cuneiform. Who organized and standardized the “papyrus”-script in the new alphabet in all the city-states? Who was interested in promoting this script? Were the letters of this alleged script pictorial? Or was there a kind of cursive version of the script, different from the letters we know? How come the alphabet letters in Sinai have so many detailed comparisons in local Middle Bronze Egyptian hieroglyphs?
Archaeology is like an endless treasure hunt. Maybe one day such inscriptions will surface. However, until then, the few scattered finds of the alphabet until the end of the second millennium fit best as a reconstructed picture of caravaneers and soldiers, wandering in the Levant with their “subversive” script for hundreds of years. The small corpus of inscriptions from the 2nd millennium is very similar to the Sinai corpus—personal names, gods’ names and, rarely, a record of a gift to a god. So rarely written, the script hardly changed during this long period. Nobody was really interested in this ugly, marginal system of “fringe people.”
Somewhere, sometime, in the 13th century B.C.E., the sophisticated scribes of Ugarit discover it.4 They recognize the genius of the idea. Yet the letters probably looked too unstable and non-standardized to them, as some were bad imitations of Egyptian hieroglyphs. They “translated” this to what they regarded as their better, civilized cuneiform-like sign system, as Rainey has so convincingly shown. It is possible that they were also the first to create the “alphabet order” we use.5 They listed all the signs borrowed from the crude caravaneer’s script, creating the “order” of the alphabet and then added at the end of the list their own additional letters (see Rainey above). They may have chosen the , the icon of the religiously loaded word “bull” (later to become the Greek alpha and Latin A) to be the first letter in the sequence of the alphabet. The bull was the sacred animal of the storm god, the champion Canaanite god. It might have been fitting in their eyes to choose this letter to be the first in the order of the alphabet.
Yet, it is also possible that the “order” of the alphabet was already forged by its original carriers, the caravaneers, perhaps already accompanied by a rhyme (like today’s alphabet) to help the uninitiated to remember the letters.
Do we all start our alphabets today with the letters A and B because the descendants of the original inventors created this order? Or is it the result of a decision taken in the schools of Ugarit on the Lebanese coast, sometime in the 13th century B.C.E?
1. In my article: Orly Goldwasser, “Canaanites Reading Hieroglyphs. Part I–Horus is Hathor? Part II–The Invention of the Alphabet in Sinai,” Ägypten und Levante XVI (2006) is at http://pluto.huji.ac.il/~orlygoldwasser/2006_AL_OGW.pdf (accessed November 23, 2010, Prof. Orly Goldwasser).
2. It is well known phenomenon in the history of ideas that “marginality” may be a general premise in the formation of a new type of thought.
3. Joseph Naveh, “Graffiti and Dedications,” Bulletin of the American School of Oriental Research (2009) pp.27–30 (reprinted recently in Joseph Naveh, Studies in West-Semitic Epigraphy [Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1979]).
4. For the latest discussion of the date of the Ugaritic script, see Dennis Pardee, “The Ugaritic Alphabetic Cuneiform Writing System in the Context of the Other Alphabetic Systems” in Cynthia L. Miller, ed., Studies in Semitic and Afroasiatic Linguistics Presented to Gene B. Gragg (Chicago: The Oriental Institute, 2007), pp. 181–200. Another “competing” alphabetic order existed in these early days.
5. The word “alphabet” is made of the names of the two first letters of this order in Hebrew—aleph and bet.
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