Pottery Shard May Be ‘Missing Link’ in the Alphabet’s Development

An inscription found on a 3,500-year-old vessel suggests that a standardized script arrived in Canaan earlier than previously thought

The letters used in the ancient alphabet bear a distinct resemblance to Egyptian hieroglyphs. Austrian Archaeological Institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences

A 3,500-year-old inscription on a pottery shard found in Israel is offering scholars new clues about the development of the alphabet that formed the basis for many modern writing systems.

The discovery appears to be the oldest writing ever recorded in Israel, reports Rossella Tercatin for the Jerusalem Post. Archaeologists found the fragment during excavations at Tel Lachish in south central Israel in 2018. Using radiocarbon dating of barley grains found alongside the shard, they were able to date it fairly precisely to about 1450 B.C., when the area was a center of Canaanite society. The team published its findings in the journal Antiquity.

Inscribed on a tiny fragment of a clay pot, the writing consists of six letters on two lines. As study co-author Haggai Misgav, an epigraphist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, tells Haaretz’s Ariel David, the first three letters may spell out the word ebed, meaning “slave” or “servant.”

The inscription was likely part of a person’s name: Per Haaretz, a popular naming convention at the time combined “servant” with the name of a local god to symbolize devotion. The second line on the shard could read nophet, meaning “nectar” or “honey.”

Tel Lachish
The Tel Lachish site was home to a large Canaanite city. Austrian Archaeological Institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences

Given that the text is short and incomplete, the researchers have not definitively determined what the inscription says. Also unclear is whether the writing was meant to be read from left to right or right to left.

In a statement, the researchers argue that the script represents a “missing link” connecting alphabetic inscriptions found in Egypt and Sinai with later writing from Canaan. The writing uses an early version of the alphabet in which letters bear a resemblance to the Egyptian hieroglyphs they evolved from.

The finding appears to overturn a previous hypothesis that the alphabet only came to Canaan when Egypt ruled the area.

“In the Late Bronze Age, between 1550 and 1200 B.C., the region was under the Egyptian empire,” lead author Felix Höflmayer, an archaeologist at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, tells the Jerusalem Post. “The Egyptians imposed their administrative system and their own writing and many experts though 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.”

Thanks to its abundant water sources and fertile land, Tel Lachish was home to a large city for much of ancient history, notes the Jewish Virtual Library. The Canaanites established a fortified power center there around 2000 B.C. A fire destroyed the city around the end of the 12th century B.C., but it was rebuilt as an Israelite fortress-city in the Kingdom of Judah before being destroyed once again during an attack by Assyrian forces in 701 B.C. Archaeologists have been investigating the site since the 1930s.

View of the dig site
Researchers found the pottery shard in 2018. Austrian Archaeological Institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences

Speaking with Owen Jarus of Live Science, Benjamin Sass, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University who was not involved in the new study, points out that dating the barley discovered with the pottery fragment may not have yielded an accurate date for the inscription itself, as the grain could have been harvested after the vessel’s creation.

“The data published so far makes [the team’s timeline] a possibility, but by no means a certainty,” he argues.

Canaanite writing eventually split into the alphabet that ancient Israelites used to write the Hebrew Bible and a version used by Phoenicians. As Lydia Wilson wrote for Smithsonian magazine earlier this year, the evolution of alphabetic writing advanced after the late Bronze Age collapse, around 1200 B.C. With the breakdown of the Mediterranean’s major empires, the leaders of smaller city-states began using local languages. Variations of the alphabet used in Canaan spread from Turkey to Spain and eventually gave rise to the Latin alphabet used in written English today.

“All alphabets have somewhat evolved from hieroglyphs, the Phoenician one, the Hebrew one, the Greek one, the Latin one and so on,” Höflmayer tells the Jerusalem Post. “… Now we know that the alphabet was not brought to the Levant by the Egyptian rule. Although we cannot really explain yet how it happened, we can say that it was much earlier and under different social circumstances.”

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