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Missing Link to First Written Alphabet Discovered on Ancient Pottery

written alphabet
Tel Lachish front gate in Israel. Tel Lachish may be the area where the first written alphabet may have developed. Credit: Wilson44691 / CC BY-SA 3.0

Early writing found on a 3,500-year-old pottery shard in Israel may represent the “missing link” in the development of the first alphabet, according to researchers who published their findings recently in Smithsonian magazine.

The inscription, which has been under study since it was first unearthed in 2018, makes researchers think that it means that a standardized script—essential in any true alphabet— arrived in Canaan earlier than previously thought.

Pottery shard showing early alphabetic language found at Tel Lachish, Israel. Credit: Austrian Archaeological Institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences

The letters used resemble Egyptian hieroglyphs, but they are not true hieroglyphs.

The letters are now believed to be the very oldest writing ever recorded in the ancient land of Israel, forming the basis of writing systems that developed later in time.

A report from the Jerusalem Post states that archaeologists unearthed the fragment as part of excavations that were undertaken at Tel Lachish in south-central Israel in 2018. The Tel Lachish archaeological site was once home to a large Canaanite city.

Tel Lachish
Tel Lachish, Israel. Credit: Austrian Archaeological Institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences)

They were able to date the pottery shard using radiocarbon dating of grains of barley found alongside it, pinpointing its origin back to 1450 B.C., when the area was a center of Canaanite society. The archaeologists published their findings in the journal Antiquity.

Only six letters on two lines, the writing was inscribed millennia ago on the soft surface of a clay pot. Haggai Misgav, an epigraphist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who was a co-author of the study, told interviewers from Haaretz that she believes that the first three letters spell out the word “ebed,” meaning “slave” or “servant.”

Oddly, the inscription was most likely part of a person’s name. According to archaeologists, a popular naming convention in ancient times combined “servant” with the name of a local god to show the person’s devotion to that deity.

The second line on the shard is believed to be the word “nophet,” meaning “nectar” or “honey.”

Missing link may connect Egyptian alphabetic inscriptions to later Canaanite writing

Because the text is short and incomplete, researchers have not yet definitively determined what the inscription says. At this time, it is also unknown whether the writing was meant to be read from left to right or right to left.

The researchers believe that the script represents a “missing link” connecting alphabetic inscriptions already discovered in Egypt and the Sinai peninsula with later writing originating from Canaan.

The writing employs an early version of the alphabet in which letters resemble the Egyptian hieroglyphs from which they evolved.

The new discovery appears to disprove a previous hypothesis which held that the alphabet only came to Canaan after Egypt came to rule the area.

Felix Höflmayer, the lead author and an archaeologist from the Austrian Academy of Sciences, told interviewers from the Jerusalem Post that “In the Late Bronze Age, between 1550 and 1200 B.C., the region was under the Egyptian empire.”

He further stated that: “The Egyptians imposed their administrative system and their own writing and many experts thought that the early alphabet might have been introduced in this context[,] but now we can see that it was already in use at least by the 15th century B.C., when there was not such a large-scale Egyptian domination.”

Because of its abundant water sources and fertile earth, early Canaanites flocked to the Tel Lachish area, and a large city flourished there for much of ancient history, according to information from the Jewish Virtual Library.

The Canaanites established a fortified citadel there in approximately 2000 B.C. After a fire destroyed the city sometime around the end of the 12th century B.C., the area was rebuilt as an Israelite fortress-city which was part of the Kingdom of Judah.

Unfortunately, Tel Lachish was destroyed once again in an Assyrian attack in the year 701 B.C. Known to have been an important site since time immemorial, archaeologists have been digging there since the 1930s.

Benjamin Sass, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University who was not involved in the excavation and subsequent study of the shard, told interviewers that dating the barley discovered alongside the pottery fragment may not have pointed to an accurate date for the inscription itself since the grain might have been harvested after the vessel was created.

“The data published so far makes [the team’s timeline] a possibility…but by no means a certainty,” he notes in an article in Live Science. 

Researchers already know for certain that the writing used by Canaanites eventually split into the alphabet that ancient Israelites utilized to write the Hebrew Bible and another version of an alphabet used by Phoenicians.

After the collapse of the Bronze Age in around 1200 BC, alphabetic writing advanced and developed further since the major powers around the Mediterranean collapsed, spurring small city-states to increasingly use their own, local languages.

According to Lydia Wilson, who had written on the development of early languages in an earlier article in Smithsonian, variations of the alphabet that were used in Canaan therefore spread from what is now Turkey all the way to Spain—eventually giving birth to the Latin alphabet used in western languages today.

Höflmayer told the Jerusalem Post “All alphabets have somewhat evolved from hieroglyphs, the Phoenician one, the Hebrew one, the Greek one, the Latin one and so on.”

“Now we know that the alphabet was not brought to the Levant by Egyptian rule. Although we cannot really explain yet how it happened,” Höflmayer added, “we can say that it was much earlier and under different social circumstances.”

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