Egyptologists find earliest use of ABC’s
Scientists say recently discovered limestone inscriptions hold clues to
the origin of the alphabet
By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE
the track of an ancient road in the desert west of the Nile, where
soldiers, couriers and traders once traveled from Thebes to Abydos,
Egyptologists have found limestone inscriptions that they say are the
earliest known examples of alphabetic writing.
Their discovery is expected to help fix the time and place for the
origin of the alphabet, one of the foremost innovations of civilization.
Carved in the cliffs of soft stone, the writing, in a Semitic script
with Egyptian influences, has been dated to somewhere between 1900 and
1800 B.C., two or three centuries earlier than previously
recognized uses of a nascent alphabet. The first experiments with the
alphabet thus appeared to be the work of Semitic people living deep in
Egypt, not in their homelands in the Syria-Palestine region, as had been
Although the two inscriptions have yet to be translated, other evidence
at the discovery site supports the idea of the alphabet as an invention
by workaday people that simplified and democratized writing, freeing it
from the elite hands of official scribes. As such, alphabetic writing
was revolutionary in a sense comparable to the invention of the
printing press much later.
Alphabetic writing emerged as a kind of shorthand by which fewer than 30
symbols, each one representing a single sound, could be combined to form
words for a wide variety of ideas and things. This eventually replaced
writing systems like Egyptian hieroglyphics in which hundreds of
pictographs, or idea pictures, had to be mastered.
"'These are the earliest alphabetic inscriptions, considerably
earlier than anyone had thought likely," said Dr. John Coleman Darnell,
an Egyptologist at Yale University "They seem to provide us with
evidence to tell us when the alphabet itself was invented, and just
Darnell and his wife, Deborah, a doctoral student in Egyptology, made
the find while conducting a survey of ancient travel routes in the
desert of southern Egypt, across from the royal city of Thebes and
beyond the pharaohs' tombs in the Valley of the Kings. In the 1993-94
season, they came upon walls of limestone marked with graffiti at the
forlorn Wadi elHol, roughly translated as "Gulch of Terror."
Darnels returned to the wadi with several specialists in early writing.
A report on their findings will be given on Nov. 22 at a meeting in
Boston of the Society of Biblical literature.
Working in the baking June heat "about as far out in the middle
of nowhere as I ever want to be," Dr. Bruce Zuckerman, director of the
West Semitic Research Project at the University of Southern California,
assisted the investigation by taking detailed pictures of the
inscriptions for analysis using computerized photo-interpretation
techniques. "This is fresh meat for the alphabet people," he
"Because of the early date of the two inscriptions and the place they
were found," said P. Kyle McCarter Jr., a professor of Near Eastern
studies at Johns Hopkins University. "it forces us to reconsider a lot
of questions having to do with the early history of the
alphabet. Things I wrote only two years ago I now consider out of
Frank M. Cross, an emeritus professor of Near Eastern languages and
culture at Harvard University, who was not a member of the
research team but who has examined the evidence, judged the
inscriptions "clearly the oldest of alphabetic writing and very
important.” He said that enough of the symbols in the inscriptions were
identical or similar to later Semitic alphabetic writing to conclude
that "this belongs to a single evolution of the alphabet.”
previously oldest evidence for an alphabet, dated about 1600 B.C., was
found near or in Semitic-speaking territory, in the Sinai Peninsula and
farther north in the Syria-Palestine region, which was occupied
by the ancient Canaanites.
These examples, known as Proto-Sinaitic and Proto-Canaanite alphabetic
inscriptions, were the basis for scholars' assuming that Semites had
developed the alphabet by borrowing and simplifying Egyptian
hieroglyphs, but doing this in their own lands and not in Egypt
From other, non-alphabetic writing at the Wadi el-Hol site, the
Egyptologists determined that the inscriptions were made during Egypt's
Middle Kingdom in the first two centuries of the second millennium B.C.
And another discovery in June by the Darnells seemed to establish
the presence of Semitic people at the wadi at the time of the inscriptions.
Surveying a few hundred yards from the site, the Darnells found an
inscription in non-alphabetic Egyptian that started with the name
of a certain Bebi, who called himself "general of the Asiatics." This
was a term used for nearly all foreigners, most of whom were Semites,
and many of them served as mercenary soldiers for Egyptian rulers at a
time of raging civil strife or came as miners and merchants. Another
reference to this Bebi has been found in papyrus records.
"This gives us 99.9 percent certainty," Darnell said of the
conclusion that early alphabetic writing was developed by
Semitic-speaking people in an Egyptian context.
was the accidental genius of these Semitic people who were at first
illiterate, living in a very literate society," McCarter said,
interpreting how the alphabet may have arisen. "Only a scribe
trained over a lifetime could handle the many different types of signs
in the formal writing. So these people adopted a crude system of
writing within the Egyptian system, something they could learn in hours,
instead of a lifetime. It was a utilitarian invention for soldiers,