First written record of Semitic alphabet, from 15th century BCE, found in Egypt
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Aleph is for 'elta

First written record of Semitic alphabet, from 15th century BCE, found in Egypt

Inscribed 3,400-year-old limestone flake from Luxor is world's first -- and second -- transliteration of early Canaanite alphabet, says Egyptologist Thomas Schneider

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • 3,400-year-old limestone ostracon of the Egyptian 18th dynasty from the excavation of Theban Tomb 99. (Nigel Strudwick)
    3,400-year-old limestone ostracon of the Egyptian 18th dynasty from the excavation of Theban Tomb 99. (Nigel Strudwick)
  • This Proto-Canaanite 'Rosetta Stone' sphinx was found by W.M.E Petrie in the temple of the mining settlement at Serabit el-Khadim. (British Museum)
    This Proto-Canaanite 'Rosetta Stone' sphinx was found by W.M.E Petrie in the temple of the mining settlement at Serabit el-Khadim. (British Museum)
  • Senneferi stands at the right of this sub-scene facing left offering to a recumbent Anubis on top of a shrine in Luxor. (courtesy Nigel Strudwick/ Cambridge Theban Tombs Project)
    Senneferi stands at the right of this sub-scene facing left offering to a recumbent Anubis on top of a shrine in Luxor. (courtesy Nigel Strudwick/ Cambridge Theban Tombs Project)
  • Excavating in Thebes' Tomb of the Nobles, circa 1997. (courtesy Nigel Strudwick/ Cambridge Theban Tombs Project)
    Excavating in Thebes' Tomb of the Nobles, circa 1997. (courtesy Nigel Strudwick/ Cambridge Theban Tombs Project)

Newly deciphered Egyptian symbols on a 3,400-year-old limestone ostracon from Luxor’s Tomb of Senneferi appears to be the first written evidence of the ABC letter order of the early Semitic alphabet, according to a University of British Columbia Egyptologist.

In his article, “A Double Abecedary? Halaham and ‘Abgad on the TT99 Ostracon,” Prof. Thomas Schneider concludes that a small (approximately 10 x 10 centimeters, or about 4 x 4 inches) double-sided limestone flake was used by Egyptian scribes as a mnemonic device to remember the letter orders of not one, but two forms of early Semitic alphabets.

On one side of the flake is Schneider’s recent discovery: the transliteration into cursive Egyptian writing of the sounds that signify the beginnings of today’s Hebrew alphabet (Aleph, Bet, Gimel). On the other, a contemporary, though now lesser-known letter order, called “Halaḥam,” which was deciphered in 2015, on the same limestone flake, by Leiden University’s Dr. Ben Haring.

The limestone piece is dated to the Egyptian 18th dynasty, from the excavation of Theban Tomb 99 from the necropolis on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor, known as the Tombs of the Nobles. Director of the Cambridge Theban Tombs Project Dr. Nigel Strudwick found the object back in 1995, in what he calls “a later tomb shaft,” dating to about 1450 BCE.

“The reason why the object is in the tomb is really unknown,” Strudwick told The Times of Israel. He said in terms of its context, it is possible that it was introduced into the shaft as late as 110 years ago, as the tomb was used as a house as late as 1907, he said.

Excavating in Thebes’ Tomb of the Nobles, circa 1997. (courtesy, Nigel Strudwick/ Cambridge Theban Tombs Project)

“The ostrakon is, however, of roughly the same date as the tomb to judge from the handwriting style. So it could have been lying around somewhere in that area of the necropolis for 3,000+ years before it ended up where we found it,” said archaeologist Strudwick.

Tomb 99 has been identified as belonging to Senneferi (also known as Sennefer), who was active in 1420 BCE, according to writing found on Papyrus Louvre E3226. The ancient Egyptian noble was a known character, a mayor of Thebes, whose likeness is recorded in several statues. Likewise, he recorded his name when he stood a monument in the Temple to Hathor in the turquoise quarry site at Serabit el-Khadim in Sinai.

Coincidentally or not, the first inscriptions of the written Semitic alphabet, often called Proto-Canaanite, are found at this Sinai quarry site.

3,400-year-old limestone ostracon of the Egyptian 18th dynasty from the excavation of Theban Tomb 99. (Nigel Strudwick)

According to Hebrew University’s head of Egyptology, Prof. Orly Goldwasser, the origins of the Semitic alphabet came from Canaanite quarry workers at the Serabit el-Khadim site, who, while experts in extracting the precious blue-green stone, were illiterate.

After enviously watching their Egyptian colleagues worshipfully engraving their devotion to their gods through beautiful hieroglyphs, around 1800 BCE these workers decided to adapt the 1,000-odd Egyptian characters into phonetic symbols and essentially invented our alphabet, says Goldwasser.

Thus, Aleph, today the first letter of the alphabet, was named after their primary god, Aluf (meaning bull in Canaanite), and symbolized by an ox head. For the sound “B,” they used a house or bayit, explains Goldwasser, in a video that accompanied an Israel Museum exhibit.

Whether Senneferi, who arrived at the Serabit el-Khadim site several hundred years later, was aware of the Proto-Canaanite script is unknown.

However, says Goldwasser, “If it is indeed the same person, all we are able to carefully suggest is that he knew the Canaanite language, and that is one of the reasons he was there [at the quarry].”

Regardless, says Goldwasser, “He could not have learned the order of the alphabet from the Sinai inscriptions.”

Mysterious ‘ugly’ scrawl

In 1905, famous Egyptologist Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie led an expedition to Sinai’s dusty Serabit el-Khadim. One day, Petrie’s wife Hilda, while walking through the ruins, stumbled, perhaps due to her floor-length starched white skirt, and noticed fallen stones inscribed with what she described as an “ugly” scrawl. They did not appear to her to be “real” hieroglyphs, explains Goldwasser in a 2010 Biblical Archaeology Review article, “How the Alphabet Was Born from Hieroglyphs.”

Serabit el-Khadim, Sinai Peninsula, from ‘Monuments from Egypt and Ethiopia.’ (public domain)

In the article, Goldwasser notes, “the vast majority of the inscriptions in this alphabet come from the Serabit area — more than 30 of them. Only one has come from elsewhere in Egypt (the two-line Wadi el-Hôl inscription). Some few, very short inscriptions (most only a couple of letters) have been found in Canaan dating to the end of the Middle Bronze Age and the Late Bronze Age (c. 1750–1200 BCE).”

But although the Petries discovered the lettering and recognized that it was something other than the more elegant Egyptian script they were accustomed to, it was another decade until a noted Egyptologist named Sir Alan H. Gardiner cracked the code.

Using a little sphinx devoted to the goddess Hathor inscribed in two different scripts (Egyptian hieroglyphs and Canaanite letters) on two sides, Gardiner noticed a “repetitive group of signs as a series of four letters in an alphabetic script that represented a word in a Canaanite language: b-‘-l-t, vocalized as Baalat, ‘the Mistress,'” writes Goldwasser. The Canaanites addressed their goddess as Ba’alat, making the little sphinx statue into a Rosetta stone of sorts for Gardiner to finally decipher the Proto-Canaanite script.

This Proto-Canaanite ‘Rosetta Stone’ sphinx was found by W.M.E Petrie in the temple of the mining settlement at Serabit el-Khadim. (British Museum)

Interestingly, she writes, “For a half millennium after its invention, this alphabet was rarely used — at least as far as it is reflected in the archaeological record.”

However, the paucity of archaeological evidence does not mean that the Canaanite language itself was not widely spoken in Egypt. It definitely was — and there is even fascinating evidence from the third millennium BCE that transliterated Canaanite spells were used on an Egyptian tomb, as discovered by Prof. Richard Steiner in 2002.

And now, with the Schneider and Haring decoding of the 15th century BCE ostracon, we see that the alphabet was also transliterated into Egyptian.

What exactly is on the ostracon?

Aleph is for ‘elta (lizard), Bet is for bibiya (snail), and Gimel is for grr (pigeon), according to Schneider’s new decoding of a side of the limestone flake.

University of British Columbia Professor of Egyptology and Near Eastern Studies Thomas Schneider (courtesy)

The small ostracon bears ink inscriptions on both sides, which appear to be a list of words written in cursive hieratic Egyptian and hieroglyphs. Based on their sounds, researchers are concluding the lists are part of an abecedary, or alphabet primer.

“It is a partial double abecedary for two alphabetic ordering systems,” Schneider told The Times of Israel in an email exchange.

As evidenced in contemporary Ugaritic cuneiform tablets, there were originally two widely known contemporaneous letter orders in the numerous early Semitic languages.

“It is less clear whether this was for two different Semitic languages (in practical use, or in terms of the ordering principle),” he said.

In a 2015 article, Haring deciphered what researchers label the “obverse” side. Also written in both cursive hieratic Egyptian and hieroglyphs, the obverse side appears to record the first seven, or potentially more, letters of the halaḥam sequence, says Schneider.

“The obverse could reflect some form of North West Semitic close to early Aramaic,” Schneider said.

However, the reverse side, writes Schneider, “is less clear, with animal designations with equivalents in different languages.”

Senneferi stands at the right of this sub-scene facing left offering to a recumbent Anubis on top of a shrine in Luxor. (courtesy Nigel Strudwick/ Cambridge Theban Tombs Project)

On both sides of the stone flake, it appears that the scribe uses two ways to transfer the alphabet — through cursive hieratic writing and a pictorial hieroglyph, which Schneider calls a “classifier.”

“The hieratic transcriptions clearly establish the acrostich [sequential order] of letter words. It is less clear what the function of the classifier hieroglyphs was. They could have been used in the traditional way to indicate the class of meaning of the foreign terms,” he writes.

3,400-year-old limestone ostracon of the Egyptian 18th dynasty from the excavation of Theban Tomb 99. (Nigel Strudwick)

Although the Proto-Canaanite script predates the dating of the ostracon, there is no evidence that the Egyptian scribe was aware of the forms of phonetic symbols (that we call letters today) — even though he may have accompanied his master at some point to the Serabit el-Khadim where they were invented hundreds of years earlier.

“We do not know whether the Proto-Sinaitic signs were already arranged in an ‘alphabetic’ way, and they were clearly no longer used during the time of this ostracon,” writes Schneider.

For what purpose?

“It does puzzle me as to why someone in the necropolis should have been writing out the sequence that is suggested by Schneider and others,” said archaeologist Strudwick.

We also still do not know what why this limestone flake was written upon, says Schneider.

“It was not a full primer, so maybe [it is] just an attempt by a scribe to write down the alphabet sequences he had learned to memorize? The overall purpose of these sequences was the order foreign words and names, probably for administrative usage,” speculates Schneider.

In his article’s conclusion, Schneider writes, “Depending on who inscribed the ostracon, it points to the knowledge of the two Semitic alphabets either among the Theban artisans working on the tomb, or the multilingual scribal elite of the administration of the Egyptian state and its provinces around 1400 BCE.”

However, Hebrew University’s Goldwasser was more specific. In an email exchange with The Times of Israel, she writes that Schneider probably meant “two Semitic alphabet orders,” not alphabets.

This undated photo provided by the Bible Lands Museum, Jerusalem, shows tablets containing cuneiform writing, one of the world’s earliest scripts, on display in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Avi Noam, Bible Lands Museum)

From the ostracon, we learn that the two arrangements or orders of Semitic/Canaanite lettering were evidently known to the Egyptian scribe, says Goldwasser. “This is unsurprising,” writes Goldwasser.

At least in Egypt, at around the same time period, they are also attested in Ugaritic, an extinct Northwest Semitic language, which was spoken — and written in cuneiform — in the Syrian city of Ugarit, she continues.

“We are aware of not a few Egyptian scribes who apparently were fluent in Canaanite. There were many Canaanite Egyptians and ties between Egyptian cities and the cities on the Lebanon coast were strong,” writes Goldwasser.

At the same time, finding a “straightforward” explanation for these Canaanite letters in Egyptian is very difficult, she adds.

If Schneider and Haring are correct, she adds, this is the first evidence that not only were the Egyptians interested in writing down in Egyptian Canaanite words, but also knew the Canaanite letters — and in two orders.

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