The New York Times -- November 13, 1999
Discovery of Egyptian Inscriptions Indicates an Earlier Date for
Origin of the Alphabet
By JOHN NOBLE WILFORDn
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
The New York Times
|The limestone walls at Wadi el-Hol
told a story of early writing.
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
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
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," Dr. John Coleman Darnell, an
Egyptologist at Yale University, said last week in an interview about
"They seem to provide us with evidence to tell us when the alphabet
itself was invented, and just how."
Dr. Darnell and his wife, Deborah, a Ph.D. 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 el-Hol, roughly translated as Gulch of Terror.
Last summer, the Darnells returned to the wadi with several
specialists in early writing. A report on their findings will be given
in Boston on Nov. 22 at a meeting of the Society of Biblical
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 photointerpretation
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 Dr. 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
Dr. 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 occupied by
the ancient Canaanites. These examples, known as Proto-Sinaitic and
Proto-Canaanite alphabetic inscriptions, were the basis for scholars'
assuming that Semites developed the alphabet by borrowing and
simplifying Egyptian hieroglyphs, but doing this in their own lands
and not in Egypt itself.
From other, nonalphabetic writing at the 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
Surveying a few hundred yards from the site, the Darnells found an
inscription in nonalphabetic 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," Dr. Darnell said of the
conclusion that early alphabetic writing was developed by
Semitic-speaking people in an Egyptian context. He surmised that
scribes in the troops of mercenaries probably developed the simplified
writing along the lines of a semicursive form of Egyptian commonly
used in the Middle Kingdom in graffiti. Working with Semitic speakers,
the scribes simplified the pictographs of formal writing and modified
the symbols into an early form of alphabet.
"It was the accidental genius of these Semitic people who were at
first illiterate, living in a very literate society," Dr. 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."
The scholars who have examined the short Wadi el-Hol inscriptions
are having trouble deciphering the messages, though they think they
are close to understanding some letters and words. "A few of these
signs just jump out at you, at anyone familiar with proto-Sinaitic
material," said Dr. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp, who teaches at the Princeton
Theological Seminary in New Jersey and is a specialist in the
languages and history of the Middle East. "They look just like one
The symbol for M in the inscriptions, for example, is a wavy line
derived from the hieroglyphic sign for water and almost identical to
the symbol for M in later Semitic writing. The meaning of some signs
is less certain. The figure of a stick man, with arms raised, appears
to have developed into an H in the alphabet, for reasons unknown.
Scholars said they could identify shapes of letters that eventually
evolved from the image of an ox head into A and from a house, which
looks more like a 9 here, into the Semitic B, or bayt. The origins and
transitions of A and B are particularly interesting because the
Egyptian-influenced Semitic alphabet as further developed by the
Phoenicians, latter-day Canaanites, was passed to the Greeks, probably
as early as the 12th century B.C. and certainly by the 9th century
B.C. From the Greeks the simplified writing system entered Western
culture by the name alphabet, a combination word for the Greek A and
B, alpha and beta.
The only words in the inscriptions the researchers think they
understand are, reading right to left, the title for a chief in the
beginning and a reference to a god at the end.
If the early date for the inscriptions is correct, this puts the
origins of alphabetic writing well before the probable time of the
biblical story of Joseph being delivered by his brothers into Egyptian
bondage, the scholars said. The Semites involved in the alphabet
invention would have been part of an earlier population of alien
workers in Egypt.
Although it is still possible that the Semites took the alphabet
idea with them to Egypt, Dr. McCarter of Johns Hopkins said that the
considerable evidence of Egyptian symbols and the absence of any
contemporary writing of a similar nature anywhere in the
Syria-Palestine lands made this unlikely.
The other earliest primitive writing, the cuneiform developed by
Sumerians in the Tigris and Euphrates Valley of present-day Iraq,
remained entirely pictographic until about 1400 B.C. The Sumerians are
generally credited with the first invention of writing, around 3200
B.C., but some recent findings at Abydos in Egypt suggest a possibly
earlier origin there. The issue is still controversial.
For Dr. Darnell, though, it is exciting enough to learn that in a
forsaken place like Wadi el-Hol, along an old desert road, people
showed they had taken a major step in written communication. He is
returning to the site next month for further exploration.