Tel Lachish and the origin of the alphabet

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I've often heard of important discoveries at Tel Lachish, and I have a special interest in the origins of the alphabet, which I consider one of the most important inventions in the history of humankind.  So when I saw the title of this article, I perked up instantaneously.

"Archaeologists Think They’ve Found Missing Link in Origin of the Alphabet

A three and a half millennia old milk jar fragment unearthed at Tel Lachish in Israel has caused quite a bit of excitement."

By Candida Moss, The Daily Beast, Updated Apr. 25, 2021 8:18AM ET / Published Apr. 25, 2021 8:17AM ET

Two key paragraphs of Candida Moss's article:

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.

Here's the original paper in Antiquity:

"Early alphabetic writing in the ancient Near East: the ‘missing link’ from Tel Lachish"

Felix Höflmayer, Haggai Misgav, Lyndelle Webster, and Katharina Streit

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 April 2021

Abstract:

The origin of alphabetic script lies in second-millennium BC Bronze Age Levantine societies. A chronological gap, however, divides the earliest evidence from the Sinai and Egypt—dated to the nineteenth century BC—and from the thirteenth-century BC corpus in Palestine. Here, the authors report a newly discovered Late Bronze Age alphabetic inscription from Tel Lachish, Israel. Dating to the fifteenth century BC, this inscription is currently the oldest securely dated alphabetic inscription from the Southern Levant, and may therefore be regarded as the ‘missing link’. The proliferation of early alphabetic writing in the Southern Levant should be considered a product of Levantine-Egyptian interaction during the mid second millennium BC, rather than of later Egyptian domination.

And the conclusion:

Ben Haring (2020: 62) has recently pointed out that many of the examples of early alphabetic writing “lack clear datings”, and thus our understanding of such writing before the well-known thirteenth century BC and later is limited. The new ostracon from Tel Lachish fills the gap between the potential early alphabetic writing on the late Middle Bronze Age Lachish Dagger and the corpus from the later Late Bronze Age phases.

The early alphabet developed in association with Western Asiatic (Canaanite) miners in Sinai (or, at least, was taken up by them) during the Middle Kingdom in the eighteenth century BC. We suggest that early alphabetic writing spread to the Southern Levant during the late Middle Bronze Age (with the Lachish Dagger probably being the earliest attested example), and was in use by at least the mid fifteenth century BC at Tel Lachish. Thus, the proliferation into the Southern Levant 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. The new early alphabetic inscription from Tel Lachish provides fresh evidence to contextualise the spread of the early alphabet within the period of Hyksos domination over the Nile Delta and its still enigmatic connections with Middle Bronze Age city-states in the Southern Levant (cf. Lemaire 2017). Furthermore, the new early alphabetic inscription dates to a period that also saw the earliest attested hieratic writing at Tel Lachish (Sweeney 2004: 1610–11), and when Lachish is mentioned for the first time in Egyptian sources during the reign of Amenhotep II (c. 1427–1401 BC) (Papyrus Hermitage 1116A; Epstein 1963; Webster et al. 2019). We now can show that early alphabetic writing in the Southern Levant developed independently of, and well before, the Egyptian domination and floruit of hieratic writing during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties (the thirteenth and twelfth centuries BC) (contra Naʾaman 2020).

It's easy to say "As easy as ABC", but the creation of the alphabet wasn't easy at all.  We'll be wrestling over it for quite a while yet.

 

Selected readings

[h.t. Don Keyser, John Rohsenow]



13 Comments »

  1. martin schwartz said,

    April 26, 2021 @ 6:58 pm

    There's a "missing link" in The Beast's article: Yeah, the sequence of letters 'ayin, bet, dalet indeed occurs frequently in ancient Semitic inscriptions, not so much as a free-standing word for 'slave', but as the beginning of a theophoric name 'Servant/Slave of (the god) N'.
    How much slavery there was in the ancient Near East is a matter of dispute, particularly as to Egypt, where Semitic workers seemed to have decent lodging and regular wages, and, as I recall from I. Gelb, also dubiious in Mesopotamia. I leave it to someone who really knows this kinda stuff to weigh in.
    Martin Schwartz

  2. Alexander Browne said,

    April 26, 2021 @ 8:47 pm

    I'm certainly no expert, but James C. Scott's 2017 book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States
    argues that people had to be forced to live in the earliest states, as slaves or nearly as slaves, due to the poor conditions full of disease and malnutrition.

  3. Peter Grubtal said,

    April 27, 2021 @ 4:27 am

    Victor Mair (quoting Candida Moss):
    "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."

    I find this slightly misleading. The Sinai inscriptions were discovered 1904–1905 by Hilda and Flinders Petrie (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proto-Sinaitic_script). The Darnells' finds push the envelope both time-wise, being seemingly more securely dated and earlier, and geographically (further west), as I understand it.

  4. James Wimberley said,

    April 27, 2021 @ 5:32 am

    Any idea what the inscription might have said? As it was a milk jar, perhaps a sell-by date. IIRC the earliest writings are overwhelmingly bureaucratic or religious records, and poetry came much later.

  5. Peter Grubtal said,

    April 27, 2021 @ 6:47 am

    James Wimberley

    The linear B tablets are the bureaucrat's dream, listing minutely, for example, vases with and without "ears" (handles presumably), chariot wheels, both serviceable and not…

    Early sumerian tablets IIRC sometimes deal with the size of fields or expected yields, reminding us of the old adage about death and taxes.

  6. Stephen Goranson said,

    April 27, 2021 @ 6:50 am

    Christopher Rollston recently considered another “potential” early alphabetic use from Tell Umm el-Marra, Syria:
    http://www.rollstonepigraphy.com/?p=921

  7. Dan Glesener said,

    April 27, 2021 @ 4:11 pm

    (1) "It’s clear that at some point alphabetic writing moved from Egypt to ancient Palestine"
    (2) "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.
    (3) "The [Tel Lachish] pottery fragment includes a partial inscription that dates to the fifteenth century BCE. [some four hundred years after the Egyptian examples].
    (4) "How and under what circumstances the alphabet was moved from Egypt to Israel was anyone’s best guess.
    (5) …“Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years. But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve, and afterward they will come out…" [Genesis 15:13-14].

  8. Chester Draws said,

    April 27, 2021 @ 7:52 pm

    "argues that people had to be forced to live in the earliest states, as slaves or nearly as slaves, due to the poor conditions full of disease and malnutrition."

    This was true of cities through-out time (and still is in the favelas etc), yet people consistently flock to cities.

  9. R. Fenwick said,

    April 27, 2021 @ 10:46 pm

    @Peter Grubtal: Early sumerian tablets IIRC sometimes deal with the size of fields or expected yields, reminding us of the old adage about death and taxes.

    Indeed. The very earliest pre-cuneiform pictographic characters often appear on clay tags or tokens that were used to represent accountings of crop yields or head of livestock; these tokens have a long history of use in the area dating back to the Ceramic Neolithic, well before the beginnings of even the earliest pre-cuneiform proto-writing.

  10. DMcCunney said,

    April 28, 2021 @ 7:40 pm

    The connection between the development of an alphabet and slavery strikes me as unfounded. Part of the issue these days is that what people think of as "slavery" is chattel slavery, where the slave is property, to be bought and sold.

    What did "Servant/Slave of (the god)" mean to those who said it? It's a notion in Islam that Allah is all powerful, and *everything* occurs because he wills it, including the actions of individual human beings. This has caused problems in development projects, because while the project is considered desirable, advance planning may *not* be done. It will happen if Allah wills it. (The notion that "God helps those who help themselves" is foreign to Islam.) So "Slave of God" is an accurate descriptor for Muslims, because their theology makes Allah the ultimate puppet master, deciding every thought and action of a Muslim's life.

    There are other types of slavery, including bonded labor, serfdom, debt peonage, forced labor, human trafficking and sexual slavery, dependency, child soldiers and child labor.

    The definition of slavery these days seems to devolve to "people not having a choice about what they do." That lack of choice is normally due to economics.

    As the world developed, various kinds of slavery, like chattel slavery or serfdom largely ceased to exist.

    I'm not sure how much, if any, chattel slavery there was in Egypt, and my knowledge of the condition of the Hebrews was that they weren't what we might consider slaves. They were contractors required to work on enormous development projects like the pyramids, but they were paid, fed, and housed. Moses *was* a Prince of Egypt, and highly ranked among one of the assorted ethnic groups that lived in Egypt.

    Internal Egyptian politics appears to have been responsible for the drop in status of the Hebrews.

    Slavery is a current hot button, so trying to retroactively apply it as a cause is not surprising, but I don't consider it valid or good research.
    _______
    Dennis

  11. martin schwartz said,

    April 29, 2021 @ 2:06 am

    Pity that the milk-jar doesn't bear another theophoric name,
    attested at a much later period, Yahumilk, Phoenician name of a king of
    Byblos, attested in an inscription. There's also, e.g.. Yatonmilk or Yatanmilk, but that's less good as a brand name.
    Martin Schwartz

  12. Lameen said,

    April 29, 2021 @ 3:47 am

    DMcCunney's attempted summary of Islamic theology is far from accurate. Suffice it to say that advance planning and the notion that "God helps those who help themselves", far from being "foreign to Islam", are specifically encouraged, as in the well-known hadith "Tie your camel and trust in God". As for the specific context, the societies of 15th c. BC Canaan seem to have been largely polytheistic; a name like "slave/servant of [X]" would more likely have referred to which god the parents hoped their child would particularly serve.

  13. DMcCunney said,

    April 30, 2021 @ 10:02 am

    @Lameen I will happily sit corrected on my simplistic description of Muslim theology. Thank you for providing it. I retain my skepticism on efforts to tie development of an alphabet to slavery.
    _______
    Dennis

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