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Egyptologists find earliest use of ABC’sScientists say recently discovered limestone inscriptions hold clues to the origin of the alphabet
By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE
On 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 thought.
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 how."
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."
The 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 said.
"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 date."
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.”
The 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 itself.
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.
"It 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, traders, merchants.