When it comes to the fruits of human genius the wheel gets a lot of credit as the most important invention in human history. If you roll the wheel to the side, however, the alphabet and different ways of producing and arranging it, like the printing press, have also had a sizeable impact on the course of human history. Even if people are divided by language, it’s by writing that ideas and stories are unshackled from individual speakers and can travel and move across space and time. For all its importance, though, the limited archeological evidence makes it difficult to tell the history of western. literature’s foundation stone. Now, archaeologists in Israel claim that they have discovered a “missing piece” of the puzzle.
In a recently published article in Antiquity, a research team led by Felix Höflmayer, an archaeologist at the Austrian Archaeological Institute, describes the discovery of three and a half millennia old milk jar fragment unearthed at Tel Lachish in Israel. The pottery fragment includes a partial inscription that dates to the fifteenth century BCE. Höflmayer said that the “inscription is currently the oldest securely dated alphabetic inscription from the Southern Levant.”
General scholarly agreement maintains that our oldest examples of alphabetic writing comes from the Sinai Peninsula and Egypt and can be dated to the nineteenth century BCE. These important inscriptions were discovered in 1998 in western Egypt and were published by a team led by Yale Egyptologist John Darnell. It’s clear that at some point alphabetic writing moved from Egypt to ancient Palestine but—until now—the earliest examples of alphabetic writing from the Levant were dated to the thirteenth or twelfth century BCE, some six hundred years after the Egyptian examples. How and under what circumstances the alphabet was moved from Egypt to Israel was anyone’s best guess.
Though there is considerable debate, some scholars hypothesized that the alphabet was transmitted in the twelfth century BCE, a period when there was intensive mining by Egyptians at Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai desert. Graffiti produced by enslaved prisoners of war at the mines and found at the site led some to argue that the proto-semitic alphabet developed during a period in which Egyptians dominated the region. Prior to the 14th century BCE there were no alphabetic Palestinian inscriptions. The debate was complicated by the fact that scholars often disagreed about whether or not inscriptions were truly alphabetic (as opposed to pictographic) and to what period, exactly, they should be dated. There was a general sense, however, that the development of the alphabet should be tied to a period of Egyptian dominance.
Given that it is dated to 1450 BCE (the fifteenth century BCE) the new inscription fills the gap.
Höflmayer and his team suggests that the inscription doesn’t just provide another data point, its early date changes how we think about the emergence of the alphabet. Up until 1550 BCE the Hyskos, a group from the Levant, ruled parts of northern Egypt as well as controlling much of the Levant. The fact that hieroglyphic symbols are also found on the jar might suggest that whomever produced the inscription was familiar with both hieroglyphic and emergent alphabetic script. “The proliferation [of the alphabet] into the Southern Levant,” the authors write, “probably happened during the (late) Middle Bronze Age and the Egyptian Second Intermediate Period, when a Dynasty of Western Asiatic origin (the Hyksos) ruled the northern parts of Egypt.” What this means is “that early alphabetic writing in the Southern Levant developed independently of, and well before, the Egyptian domination and floruit of hieratic writing during the … thirteenth and twelfth centuries BC.”
The inscription itself is fragmentary and is thus near impossible to decipher. The first word contains the letters ayin, bet and dalet while the second begins with the letters nun, pe, and tav. Anyone who has learned Hebrew will recognize the names of these letters as part of the Semitic alphabet. Though the early version used in the Arabian Peninsula are visually quite different from the Hebrew alphabet used today, there’s a clear connection between the two.
What’s particularly interesting, given the way in which many scholars have tied the development of alphabetic script to the history of oppression, is that the letters of the first word (ayin, bet, dalet) spell the word “slave.” Though Höflmayer stresses that this could be purely accidental as these letters form the beginning of many ancient words, some might wish to read more here. Perhaps it is possible that an enslaved person was involved in the production of this inscription we certainly shouldn’t exclude this possibility form the history of writing.
Not everyone is convinced by Höflmayer’s arguments. What makes this discovery important, Seth Sanders, a professor of religious studies at UC-Davis and author of the book The Invention of Hebrew told me, is that it was found in a “securely dated context.” So much of this conversation rests on when we date the composition of various fragments of ancient writing. For Sanders this inscription “is absolutely not a missing link or game-changer.” There are, he told me, four earlier inscriptions from the region, but the authors of the new study dispute the dating of these objects. The result is that this new inscription looks more “unique and important.” Sanders told the Daily Beast that he looks “forward to a real epigraphic treatment (with comparison of orientation and letterforms and a script chart) that would help both epigraphers and laypeople get a more detailed evidence-based picture.”
In either case, the discovery and publication of the new inscription provides more information about the history of the alphabet and helps establish Tel Lachish as “an early centre of writing” in the ancient world. The preponderance of alphabetic scription from bowls, tombs, and a temple suggest that this is one of the places that the Semitic alphabet developed. Over the followed centuries, the Greeks (and, following them, the Romans) adopted an alphabetized writing system. And of course English—and many other languages—use the Latin writing system and Hindu-Arabic numerals to this day.