Skip to main content Accessibility help
×
Home
Hostname: page-component-cf9d5c678-gf4tf Total loading time: 1.024 Render date: 2021-07-27T03:41:41.740Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "figures": true, "newCiteModal": false, "newCitedByModal": true, "newEcommerce": true, "newUsageEvents": true }

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

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 April 2021

Felix Höflmayer
Affiliation:
Austrian Archaeological Institute, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Austria
Haggai Misgav
Affiliation:
Institute of Archaeology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel
Lyndelle Webster
Affiliation:
Austrian Archaeological Institute, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Austria
Katharina Streit
Affiliation:
Austrian Archaeological Institute, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Austria
Corresponding
Rights & Permissions[Opens in a new window]

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.

Type
Research Article
Creative Commons
Creative Common License - CCCreative Common License - BY
This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Copyright
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of Antiquity Publications Ltd

Introduction

It is often assumed that early alphabetic writing was developed by members of a Semitic-speaking, Western Asiatic population (‘Canaanites’) who were involved in Egyptian mining operations around Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai Peninsula (Sass Reference Sass1988; Goldwasser Reference Goldwasser2006; Naʾaman Reference Naʾaman2020). Later, this early alphabet would spread to the Southern Levant, where it was transformed into the Phoenician alphabet, from which the Greek alphabet subsequently derived (Albright Reference Albright1969; Naveh Reference Naveh1987; Sass Reference Sass1988; Goldwasser Reference Goldwasser2006; Hamilton Reference Hamilton2006, Reference Hamilton, Hackett and Aufrecht2014; Morenz Reference Morenz2011; Daniels Reference Daniels2017; Burlingame Reference Burlingame2019; Naʾaman Reference Naʾaman2020). This interpretation builds upon the discovery of a number of early alphabetic inscriptions that were discovered in Sinai from the early twentieth century AD onwards (Petrie Reference Petrie1906; Leibovitch Reference Leibovitch1934), at and around the temple of Hathor at Serabit el-Khadim (Figure 1). In an influential article, Alan Gardiner demonstrated that these inscriptions were examples of early alphabetic writing derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs (Gardiner Reference Gardiner1916; see also Gardiner Reference Gardiner1962).

Figure 1. Map of sites mentioned in the text (figure by M. Börner, Austrian Academy of Sciences).

In 1998, two further early alphabetic inscriptions were discovered in the Wadi el-Hol, in the western desert of Egypt, and tentatively dated to the late Middle Kingdom (late Twelfth to early Thirteenth Dynasties; late nineteenth/early eighteenth century BC) (Darnell et al. Reference Darnell, Dobbs-Allsopp, Lundberg, McCarter, Zuckerman and Manassa2005). These inscriptions demonstrate that early alphabetic writing was not confined to Sinai, but was also used in the Nile Valley. While most scholars agree that these inscriptions are indeed examples of early alphabetic writing (Hamilton Reference Hamilton, Hackett and Aufrecht2014: 31–34)—perhaps using Egyptian vocabulary (Wimmer & Wimmer-Dweikat Reference Wimmer and Wimmer-Dweikat2001)—others have suggested that they can also be understood as ‘proper’ Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions (Morenz Reference Morenz2011: 171–75). Another example of probable early alphabetic writing has been recently discovered on an ostracon (a potsherd used as a writing surface) from a tomb in western Thebes (TT 99) and dated palaeographically to the fifteenth century BC (Haring Reference Haring2015; Fischer-Elfert & Krebernik Reference Fischer-Elfert and Krebernik2016; Schneider Reference Schneider2018).

The date for the development of early alphabetic script is still disputed (Lemaire Reference Lemaire, Halpern and Sacks2017; Haring Reference Haring, Boyes and Steele2020). It was originally dated by Gardiner (Reference Gardiner1916: 13–14) to the Twelfth Dynasty (early second millennium BC)—a period of intensive Egyptian mining activity around Serabit el-Khadim. A date after 1500 BC (in the Eighteenth Dynasty), or even later, was soon suggested (Leibovitch Reference Leibovitch1934, Reference Leibovitch1963) and accepted by several other scholars (e.g. Albright Reference Albright1948, Reference Albright1969; Naveh Reference Naveh1987). Lemaire (Reference Lemaire, Halpern and Sacks2017: 106) suggests that early alphabetic writing was developed during the “period of Hyksos domination in the south of Palestine or in the Egyptian Delta around the 18th–17th century BCE”. Benjamin Sass (Reference Sass1988), who in the late 1980s advocated an early date, withdrew his original position in the early 2000s, arguing that “the alphabet was born in the 14th or early 13th century [. . .] surfacing in the Levant shortly thereafter” (Sass Reference Sass2004–2005: 157).

Farther north, the earliest occurrence of early alphabetic writing in the Southern Levant is also disputed. Scholars long assumed that the script was introduced to the region as early as the transition from the Middle to the Late Bronze Age (c. 1600/1550 BC), on the basis of several inscribed objects (see below for details of the controversy) (e.g. Naveh Reference Naveh1987; Sass Reference Sass1988). Sass later (Reference Sass2004–2005: 157), however, argued that “no pre-14th-century, perhaps no pre-1300 BC alphabetic inscriptions from Palestine can be pointed out with any confidence”. Naʾaman (Reference Naʾaman2020) also recently dated the spread of alphabetic writing to the Southern Levant to not before Late Bronze II (fourteenth century BC), and argued that its development in the Southern Levant was linked to scribal activities in the Egyptian centres of the Late Bronze Age.

If we accept an early Twelfth Dynasty date for the inscriptions in Sinai, and Twelfth to early Thirteenth Dynasty dates for those from Wadi el-Hol, then this leaves a significant temporal gap between these inscriptions and the first securely dated early alphabetic inscriptions in the Southern Levant in the fourteenth/thirteenth centuries BC. A recently discovered early alphabetic inscription from Tel Lachish now fills this gap and sheds new light on disputed examples of early alphabetic writing that have previously been dated to the late Middle Bronze Age.

Archaeological context and dating

Tel Lachish, located in the Shephelah region in modern-day Israel, is one of the most prominent Bronze and Iron Age sites of the Southern Levant. Excavations at the site have unearthed substantial Late Bronze Age (c. 1600/1550–1200 BC) and Iron Age (c. 1200–586 BC) remains, yielding imports from Egypt, Cyprus and the Aegean that attest to the regional importance of the site. Late Bronze Age Lachish is also mentioned in Egyptian sources, such as Papyrus Hermitage 1116A from the time of Amenhotep II (c. 1427–1401 BC), which mentions an envoy from Lachish coming to the Egyptian court (Epstein Reference Epstein1963), and figures prominently in the Amarna letters, the cuneiform correspondence between the major powers of the time found at Tell el-Amarna in Egypt (Rainey Reference Rainey2015). An Austrian team renewed excavations at Tel Lachish in 2017 (Streit et al. Reference Streit, Webster, Becker, Jeske, Misgav and Höflmayer2018). Two excavation areas are currently under investigation (Figure 2): area P, located to the north of the Iron Age Judean Palace-Fort, and area S at the western slope of the mound. Both of these areas were originally excavated in the 1970s and 1980s by the Tel Aviv University expedition (Ussishkin Reference Ussishkin2004a), and have now been re-opened in order to deepen our understanding of the Middle and Late Bronze Age strata, with the aid of high-resolution AMS radiocarbon-dating.

Figure 2. Map of Lachish, with the excavation areas indicated (figure by A. Woitzuck, Austrian Academy of Sciences).

The new early alphabetic inscription was found during the 2018 excavation season in area S, in locus L1114 of stratum S-3b. This area was originally excavated between 1973 and 1987 by the Tel Aviv team, who uncovered a sequence of Iron Age and Late Bronze Age occupation levels (Table 1) (Barkay & Ussishkin Reference Barkay, Ussishkin and Ussishkin2004a & Reference Barkay, Ussishkin and Ussishkinb).

Table 1. Late Bronze Age stratigraphy of area S; the stratigraphic position of the find context (S-3b) is highlighted; LB = Late Bronze, IA = Iron Age.

Stratum S-3 is dominated by a monumental structure (building 100), with 1m-wide mud-brick walls set on unusually deep stone foundations. The southern wall (L1027) runs for 16m east–west, although most of the building lies beyond the northern section of the trench. Building 100 attests several phases of re-use, the latest of which was excavated by the Tel Aviv team (Barkay & Ussishkin Reference Barkay, Ussishkin and Ussishkin2004b: fig. 8.13). The Austrian expedition labels this last use phase as stratum S-3a, as two earlier sub-phases have now been identified: strata S-3b and S-3c. During each sub-phase, small domestic units were built immediately to the south of building 100, abutting wall L1027 (Figure 3). Excavations in 2019 revealed that building 100 was not an isolated monumental structure, but rather formed an integral part of what can be understood as a fortification system, including a city wall (L1220) and tower (L1127/L1163/L1227) (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Area S, looking west. Early Late Bronze Age fortification, with the southern wall of building 100 (L1027) on the right side (figure by J. Dye & L. Webster, Austrian Academy of Sciences).

The early alphabetic inscription (‘B10969’ on Figure 4) was found during excavation of deposits immediately to the south of wall L1027, close to the corner with city wall L1220, at a level (255m asl) near to its (wall L1220) uppermost preserved stones (this was prior to recognition and exposure of the stratum S-3c ‘fortification’). The inscription was undoubtedly deposited within the stratum S-3 phase, as it was sealed 0.5m below two stratum S-3a walls (L1162 and L1043) and the fragmentary stratum S-3a surface that was removed by the earlier Tel Aviv excavations (Barkay & Ussishkin Reference Barkay, Ussishkin and Ussishkin2004b: fig. 8.13).

Figure 4. Plan of stratum S-3 in area S, with the findspot of the early alphabetic inscription indicated (B10696) (figure by A. Woitzuck, Austrian Academy of Sciences).

The inscribed sherd was found at the boundary of three distinct loci (L1150, L1117 and L1114—a fill that overlies the other two), while exposing and sampling burnt lens L1150 for radiocarbon-dating. Although it is uncertain whether the sherd was deposited together with the organic material in lens L1150, it was certainly in direct contact with the burnt layer, and was therefore deposited at essentially the same time. Thus, the date of deposition of the sherd can be determined using radiocarbon-dating. Two measurements on separate barley grains from L1150 were analysed at the Groningen and ETH Zürich AMS laboratories (GrM-17566 and ETH-96577). The results are plotted in Figure 5, with both falling definitively in the fifteenth century BC, and most likely before its final quarter.

Figure 5. Radiocarbon dates associated with the early alphabetic inscription (dates calibrated using OxCal v.4.4.2 and the IntCal20 calibration curve; Bronk Ramsey Reference Bronk Ramsey2009; Reimer et al. Reference Reimer2020) (figure by L. Webster, Austrian Academy of Sciences).

Over the past three years of excavation in area S, a detailed and robust radiocarbon sequence has been developed for strata S-3 and S-2, using short-lived material from a long series of in situ burnt layers (Webster et al. Reference Webster, Streit, Dee, Hajdas and Höflmayer2019). Bayesian modelling shows that the earliest stratum (S-3a) exposed by the Tel Aviv excavations dates to the fifteenth century BC, approximately 100 years earlier than previously thought (late fourteenth century BC; Ussishkin Reference Barkay, Ussishkin and Ussishkin2004b; Yannai Reference Yannai and Ussishkin2004). Figure 6 summarises the relevant outcomes of the most current Bayesian model, which includes 27 measurements and more than 15 sequential layers within the fine stratigraphy of strata S-2–3. Calculated transition boundaries are plotted, rather than individual dates, with the exception of GrM-17566 and ETH-96577, which have been included to highlight the constraining effect on L1150 (see Figure 6). Stratum S-3b and the find context of the inscribed sherd are constrained close to the mid fifteenth century BC (1460–1430 BC, 1σ; 1485–1425 BC, 2σ), providing a remarkably precise terminus ante quem for the inscription. The newly identified stratum S-3c—perhaps the phase from which the inscription itself originates—dates to the first half of the fifteenth century BC, which is contemporaneous with the city wall and early life of building 100.

Figure 6. Radiocarbon Bayesian model for area S highlighting the constraining effect on the inscription's deposition date: light-shaded areas represent individual calibrated radiocarbon determinations; dark-shaded areas represent modelled calibrated radiocarbon determinations based on the prior information (the stratigraphic sequence) entered into the model (modelled using OxCal v.4.4.2 and the IntCal20 calibration curve; Bronk Ramsey Reference Bronk Ramsey2009; Reimer et al. Reference Reimer2020) (figure by L. Webster, Austrian Academy of Sciences).

Inscription and reading

The inscribed sherd is an approximately 40 × 35mm rim fragment from a Cypriote White Slip II milk bowl (Figure 7; Åström Reference Åström1972: 447–57). This ware first appeared during Late Bronze IB (e.g. Gittlen Reference Gittlen1981: 50–51), although it only became popular during Late Bronze IIA (Artzy Reference Artzy and Gitin2019: 342). At Tel Lachish, White Slip II ware was encountered in Fosse temple I (Tufnell et al. Reference Tufnell, Inge and Harding1940: 83, pl. XLIII B; Singer-Avitz Reference Singer-Avitz and Ussishkin2004), and appears in substantial quantities from Strata S-3 onwards (Bunimovitz Reference Bunimovitz and Ussishkin2004).

Figure 7. Early alphabetic inscription on a White Slip II rim sherd (figure by J. Dye, Austrian Academy of Sciences).

The inner surface of the sherd's rim is inscribed in dark ink, with letters written diagonally. Two lines each containing three letters can be discerned. Two additional characters are visible on the right side of the upper line, and another is visible between the two lines. Our suggested reading for line one (the top line) is from right to left. The first letter can be identified as ʿayin (ע), which is based on the Egyptian hieroglyph ‘eye’ (Gardiner Sign List D4; Sass Reference Sass1988: 126–27; Hamilton Reference Hamilton2006: 180–88; Goldwasser Reference Goldwasser, Finkelstein, Robin and Römer2016: 131–32). As in most early alphabetic inscriptions from the Southern Levant, the letter is shaped like a circle, resembling an iris with the pupil missing. The second letter can be identified as bet (ב), which is based on the Egyptian hieroglyph ‘house’ (Gardiner Sign List O1; Sass Reference Sass1988: 111–12; Hamilton Reference Hamilton2006: 38–52; Goldwasser Reference Goldwasser, Finkelstein, Robin and Römer2016: 129). The letter has a rectangular shape with one corner open. The third letter can be read as dalet (ד), based on the Egyptian hieroglyph ‘door’ (Gardiner Sign List O31; Hamilton Reference Hamilton2006: 61–75; Goldwasser Reference Goldwasser, Finkelstein, Robin and Römer2016: 129). The suggested reading for this line may therefore be עבד, meaning ‘slave’, and could be part of a personal name. Names with the component ʿbd (slave) are very common in all Semitic languages, generally with a theophoric (bearing the name of a god) element of a local divinity (e.g. Tigay Reference Tigay1986; Golub Reference Golub2020).

The suggested reading for line two is also from right to left. The first letter can be identified as nun (נ), which derives from the Egyptian hieroglyphs ‘horned viper’ and/or ‘cobra’ (Gardiner Sign List I9 and I10; Sass Reference Sass1988: 125–26; Hamilton Reference Hamilton2006: 154–71; Goldwasser Reference Goldwasser, Finkelstein, Robin and Römer2016: 131). This letter can also be identified between lines one and two, and on the right side of line one. The second letter can be identified as pe (פ). While it is not entirely certain from which sign this character is derived, the hieroglyph for ‘corner’ (Gardiner Sign List O38) has been suggested (Sass Reference Sass1988: 128; Hamilton Reference Hamilton2006: 188–96). Goldwasser (Reference Goldwasser, Finkelstein, Robin and Römer2016: 132) argues that this sign is uncommon in Middle Kingdom inscriptions from Sinai, instead suggesting that the sign represents a building tool (Goldwasser Reference Goldwasser, Finkelstein, Robin and Römer2016: 132). The third letter can be identified as tav (ת), and it is again unclear on which sign the character is based. It could be the hieroglyph for ‘crossed planks’ (Gardiner Sign List Z11; Hamilton Reference Hamilton2006: 246–53), but some have also suggested an independent origin (Sass Reference Sass1988: 133; Goldwasser Reference Goldwasser, Finkelstein, Robin and Römer2016: 134). The suggested reading for line two is therefore נפת, which in Hebrew means ‘honey’ or ‘nectar’. If read from left to right—תפנ—this term could be a verb from the root פני (‘to turn’), or part of an unknown name.

From a typological perspective, the letters seem to be of a somewhat later date to those from the inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadim, as suggested by the circle-shaped eye without the pupil and the relatively developed letter pe. Yet the letters of this inscription seem to be earlier than those from the later Late Bronze Age, like the Lachish Ewer (see below). A date at the beginning of the Late Bronze Age therefore seems reasonable, and is supported by the radiocarbon data mentioned above.

Historical context

The newly discovered inscription from Tel Lachish is currently the earliest securely dated example of early alphabetic writing in the Southern Levant. In order to assess the importance of this find, we briefly review the other potential early alphabetic examples from the area.

A disputed contender for the earliest example is a scarab from Tell Abu Zureiq, in the Jezreel Valley. Found in a Middle Bronze Age tomb excavated by Meyerhof (Reference Meyerhof1989), the scarab was dated to the Thirteenth to Fifteenth Dynasties (Giveon Reference Giveon1988: 22; Keel Reference Keel1997: 17). Its base depicts a man and four signs, which Giveon (Reference Giveon1988: 22) originally interpreted as Egyptian hieroglyphs. Kitchen (Reference Kitchen1989) suggested that these signs could be read as early alphabetic characters, an interpretation rejected by Keel (Reference Keel1997: 16–17), but recently endorsed by Morenz (Reference Morenz2011: 164–65).

Another potential early alphabetic inscription is the much-discussed Lachish Dagger, which was discovered in 1934 by the British Expedition in tomb 1502, and dated to the late Middle Bronze Age (Tufnell Reference Tufnell1958: 254). The bronze dagger exhibits four potential early alphabetic signs (Tufnell Reference Tufnell1958: 128; Sass Reference Sass1988: 53–54; Hamilton Reference Hamilton2006: 390–91), and most scholars accept this interpretation (e.g. Albright Reference Albright1948, Reference Albright1969: 10; Naveh Reference Naveh1987: 26; Hamilton Reference Hamilton2006: 303–4; Goldwasser Reference Goldwasser2006: 132, Reference Goldwasser, Finkelstein, Robin and Römer2016: 140–42; Morenz Reference Morenz2011: 170–71; Lemaire Reference Lemaire, Halpern and Sacks2017: 106; Haring Reference Haring, Boyes and Steele2020: 59). In 1988, Sass agreed that the inscription was probably early alphabetic, pointing out that it would be the only one that could be securely dated to the Middle Bronze Age (Sass Reference Sass1988: 54). He later grew more cautious, however, and suggested that the signs might not be early alphabetic after all (Sass Reference Sass2004–2005: 150).

A third example that has been dated to the Middle Bronze Age is the so-called ‘Gezer Sherd’. Exhibiting three early alphabetic characters, this sherd was found in 1929 on the surface of Tel Gezer (Albright Reference Albright1935). It was soon dated to the Middle Bronze Age (Albright Reference Albright1935)—an attribution accepted by many scholars (e.g. Albright Reference Albright1969: 10; Naveh Reference Naveh1987: 26; Hamilton Reference Hamilton2006: 308–309; Morenz Reference Morenz2011: 166; Goldwasser Reference Goldwasser, Finkelstein, Robin and Römer2016: 143). Sass was more cautious, however, arguing that the sherd could not be classified typologically, and that its date could range from Middle Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age (Sass Reference Sass1988: 55). He later concluded that the Gezer Sherd is essentially undatable (Sass Reference Sass2004–2005: 149).

Several inscriptions on an assemblage of storage jars from Tel Gezer have also been interpreted as early alphabetic writing (Seger Reference Seger, Meyers and O'Conner1983, Reference Seger2013: 186–96; Goldwasser Reference Goldwasser, Finkelstein, Robin and Römer2016: 142–43). These jars were found in storerooms next to the southern gate area (field IV) and were associated with stratum XVIII (early Late Bronze Age) and stratum XIX (late Middle Bronze Age) (Seger Reference Seger2013). Most of the jars were inscribed with a single sign, with only two jars bearing two signs each. Sass (Reference Sass1988: 98) mentioned these Gezer jars briefly as examples of early alphabetic writing, but later re-interpreted them as bearing only potters’ marks (Sass Reference Sass2004–2005: 166, footnote 97).

A fragmentary plaque from Shechem is frequently mentioned in the corpus of potential Middle Bronze Age early alphabetic inscriptions from the Southern Levant (Böhl Reference Böhl1938). According to the earliest publications, this object was found in a Middle Bronze Age building, just above the floor, together with typical, contemporaneous Tell el-Yahudiyah pottery (Böhl Reference Böhl1938: 2). Scholars have long accepted a Middle Bronze or early Late Bronze Age date for the plaque (Albright Reference Albright1948, Reference Albright1969: 10–11; Leibovitch Reference Leibovitch1963; Wimmer Reference Wimmer2001; Hamilton Reference Hamilton2006: 308), which represents the lower right portion of a stela depicting a person facing to the left and clad in a heavy garment (‘Wulstsaummantel’)—a common Middle Bronze Age garment type (Wimmer Reference Wimmer2001). The plaque's archaeological context, however, has been questioned due to the early excavation techniques with limited stratigraphic control, and the lack of a final excavation report (Sass Reference Sass1988: 57). The early alphabetic nature of the characters has also been called into question (Sass Reference Sass2004–2005: 149–50).

Yet another disputed early alphabetic inscription was found at Tel Nagila in the 1960s. Here, a body sherd of a jug, with an inscription incised before firing, was discovered in area A, a residential area provisionally dated to the end of the Middle or the early Late Bronze Age (Amiran & Eitan Reference Amiran and Eitan1965: 121). Sass (Reference Sass1988: 54), however, rightly emphasised the lack of a clear stratigraphic context for that sherd. Later, quoting David Ilan, who observed that a large Late Bronze Age building disturbed the Middle Bronze Age strata in the area where the inscription was found, Sass concluded that the Tel Nagila sherd “is to be regarded as unstratified, and a LBII origin [is] not implausible” (Sass Reference Sass2004–2005: 159).

The dates and interpretations of the evidence for the earliest occurrences of early alphabetic writing in the Southern Levant are therefore ambiguous, as only the Lachish Dagger (if accepted as early alphabetic) was found in a clear archaeological context datable to the Middle Bronze Age (as rightly pointed out by Sass (Reference Sass1988: 54)). The discovery of the new early alphabetic inscription at Tel Lachish pushes back the earliest securely datable occurrence considerably, and we can now show that early alphabetic writing was employed in the Southern Levant by the mid fifteenth century BC (early Late Bronze Age). This evidence not only closes the gap between the development of early alphabetic inscriptions around Serabit el-Khadim and Wadi el-Hol in Upper Egypt, and its more widespread Southern Levantine use in the later Late Bronze Age, but also suggests that early alphabetic writing was already present in the Southern Levant by the (late) Middle Bronze Age.

The new early alphabetic inscription also underscores the importance of Tel Lachish as an early centre of writing (Goldwasser Reference Goldwasser, Finkelstein, Robin and Römer2016: 151; Naʾaman Reference Naʾaman2020). Indeed, Lachish has yielded more examples of Late Bronze Age early alphabetic inscriptions than any other site. In addition to the Lachish Dagger and the new inscription discussed here, the site has yielded four other examples of alphabetic writing. In tomb 527, the British Expedition of 1935 found a bowl (Lachish bowl one) bearing a painted inscription (Tufnell Reference Tufnell1958: 129). This tomb also contained a Cypriot Base Ring II juglet and a local imitation of a Mycenaean straight-sided alabastron (Tufnell Reference Tufnell1958: 239). Tufnell (Reference Tufnell1958: 129) considered this tomb to be contemporaneous with the late Fosse temple II or early Fosse temple III, and thus coeval (or slightly earlier) with stratum VII on the mound. In absolute terms, this dates to the fourteenth or thirteenth century BC (Ussishkin Reference Artzy and Gitin2004b: 57). In Fosse temple III, the British Expedition found the well-known Lachish Ewer, which bears a painted early alphabetic inscription (Tufnell et al. Reference Tufnell, Inge and Harding1940: 47–54; Tuffnell Reference Tufnell1958: 130). As Fosse temple III corresponds to stratum VII on the mound, the Ewer roughly dates to the thirteenth century BC (Ussishkin Reference Ussishkin and Ussishkin2004b: 57).

A fragment of a bowl bearing a black-ink inscription comprising two straight lines of characters was found by the Tel Aviv Expedition in pit 3867, in area S (Lemaire Reference Lemaire and Ussishkin2004). This pit belongs to stratum VI and dates to the twelfth century BC (Ussishkin Reference Ussishkin and Ussishkin2004b: 57). Finally, another inscription from stratum VI—a pottery sherd with several characters incised before firing—was found in the inner part of a Late Bronze Age temple in area BB during recent excavations by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Southern Adventist University (Sass et al. Reference Sass, Garfinkel, Hasel and Klingbeil2015).

Conclusions

Ben Haring (Reference Haring, Boyes and Steele2020: 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 Reference Lemaire, Halpern and Sacks2017). Furthermore, the new early alphabetic inscription dates to a period that also saw the earliest attested hieratic writing at Tel Lachish (Sweeney Reference Sweeney and Ussishkin2004: 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 Reference Epstein1963; Webster et al. Reference Webster, Streit, Dee, Hajdas and Höflmayer2019). 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 Reference Naʾaman2020).

Acknowledgements

The authors wish to thank the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority for the necessary excavation permits, R. Gareth Roberts for improving the English in the manuscript, and the two anonymous reviewers for valuable additional comments. The excavation and research were conducted as part of the project Tracing Transformations, directed by Felix Höflmayer.

Funding statement

The Tracing Transformations project is funded by an Austrian Science Fund (FWF) START-grant (Y-932 G25).

References

Albright, W.F. 1935. The inscription from Gezer at the School in Jerusalem. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 58: 2829. https://doi.org/10.2307/1354811CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Albright, W.F. 1948. The early alphabetic inscriptions from Sinai and their decipherment. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 110: 622. https://doi.org/10.2307/3218767CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Albright, W.F. 1969. The proto-Sinaitic inscriptions and their decipherment. Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
Amiran, R. & Eitan, A.. 1965. A Canaanite-Hyksos city at Tell Nagila. Archaeology 18: 113–23.Google Scholar
Artzy, M. 2019. Late Bronze Age I–II Cypriot imports, in Gitin, S. (ed.) The ancient pottery of Israel and its neighbours, volume 3: from the Middle Bronze Age through the Late Bronze Age: 339–79. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society.Google Scholar
Åström, P. 1972. The Late Cypriote Bronze Age: architecture and pottery (The Swedish Cyprus Expedition IV Part 1C). Lund: The Swedish Cyprus Expedition.Google Scholar
Barkay, G. & Ussishkin, D.. 2004a. Area S: the Iron Age strata, in Ussishkin, D. (ed.) The renewed archaeological excavations at Lachish (1973–1994): 411–50. Tel Aviv: Emery and Claire Yass Publications in Archaeology.Google Scholar
Barkay, G. & Ussishkin, D.. 2004b. Area S: the Late Bronze Age strata, in Ussishkin, D. (ed.) The renewed archaeological excavations at Lachish (1973–1994): 316407. Tel Aviv: Emery and Claire Yass Publications in Archaeology.Google Scholar
Böhl, F.M.T. 1938. Die Sichem-Plakette: Protoalphabetische Schriftzeichen der Mittelbronzezeit vom tell balāṭa. Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins 61: 125.Google Scholar
Bronk Ramsey, C. 2009. Bayesian analysis of radiocarbon dates. Radiocarbon 51: 337–60. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0033822200033865CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bunimovitz, S. 2004. Additional Late Bronze Age assemblages. Section D: the Late Cypriot pottery, in Ussishkin, D. (ed.) The renewed archaeological excavations at Lachish (1973–1994): 1262–72. Tel Aviv: Emery and Claire Yass Publications in Archaeology.Google Scholar
Burlingame, A.R. 2019. Writing and literacy in the world of ancient Israel: recent developments and future directions. Bibliotheca Orientalis 76: 4674.Google Scholar
Daniels, P.T. 2017. An exploration of writing. Sheffield: Equinox.Google Scholar
Darnell, J.C., Dobbs-Allsopp, F.W., Lundberg, M.J., McCarter, P.K., Zuckerman, B. & Manassa, C.. 2005. Two early alphabetic inscriptions from the Wadi el-Ḥôl: new evidence for the origin of the alphabet from the Western Desert of Egypt. Boston (MA): American Schools of Oriental Research.Google Scholar
Epstein, C. 1963. A new appraisal of some lines from a long-known papyrus. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 49: 4956. https://doi.org/10.1177/030751336304900109CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Fischer-Elfert, H.-W. & Krebernik, M.. 2016. Zu den Buchstabennamen auf dem Halaḥam-Ostrakon aus TT 99 (Grab des Sennefri). Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 143: 169–76. https://doi.org/10.1515/zaes-2016-0011CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gardiner, A.H. 1916. The Egyptian origin of the Semitic alphabet. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 3: 116. https://doi.org/10.1177/030751331600300101CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gardiner, A.H. 1962. Once again the proto-Sinaitic inscriptions. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 48: 4548. https://doi.org/10.1177/030751336204800106CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gittlen, B. 1981. The cultural and chronological implications of the Cypro-Palestinian trade during the Late Bronze Age. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 241: 4959. https://doi.org/10.2307/1356710CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Giveon, R. 1988. Scarabs from recent excavations in Israel. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.Google Scholar
Goldwasser, O. 2006. Canaanites reading hieroglyphs: Horus is Hathor? The invention of the alphabet in Sinai. Ägypten & Levante 16: 121–60. https://doi.org/10.1553/AEundL16s121Google Scholar
Goldwasser, O. 2016. From the iconic to the linear: the Egyptian scribes of Lachish and the modification of the early alphabet in the Late Bronze Age, in Finkelstein, I., Robin, C. & Römer, T. (ed.) Alphabets, texts and artifacts in the ancient Near East: studies presented to Benjamin Sass: 118–60. Paris: Van Dieren Éditeur.Google Scholar
Golub, M.R. 2020. Theophoric elements in names on Hebrew bullae from the Kaufman Collection: a comparative study. Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society 34: 4267.Google Scholar
Hamilton, G.J. 2006. The origins of the west Semitic alphabet in Egyptian scripts. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic Biblical Association of America.Google Scholar
Hamilton, G.J. 2014. Reconceptualizing the periods of early alphabetic scripts, in Hackett, J.A. & Aufrecht, W.E. (ed.) ‘An eye for form’: epigraphic essays in honor of Frank Moore Cross: 3055. Winona Lake (IN): Eisenbrauns.10.5325/j.ctv1bxh43r.10CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Haring, B. 2015. Halaḥam on an Ostracon of the early New Kingdom? Journal of Near Eastern Studies 74: 189–96. https://doi.org/10.1086/682330CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Haring, B. 2020. Ancient Egypt and the earliest known stages of alphabetic writing, in Boyes, P.J. & Steele, P.M. (ed.) Understanding relations between scripts II: early alphabets: 5367. Oxford: Oxbow.Google Scholar
Keel, O. 1997. Corpus der Stempelsiegel-Amulette aus Palästina/Israel. Von den Anfängen bis zur Perserzeit: Katalog Band I: Von Tell Abu Farağ bis ʿAtlit. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.Google Scholar
Kitchen, K.A. 1989. An early west-Semitic epigraph on a scarab from Tell Abu Zureiq? Israel Exploration Journal 39: 278–80.Google Scholar
Leibovitch, J. 1934. Les inscriptions protosinaïtiques. Le Caire: Imprimerie de l'institut français d'archéologie orientale.Google Scholar
Leibovitch, J. 1963. The date of the proto-Sinaitic inscriptions. Le Muséon 76: 201203.Google Scholar
Lemaire, A. 2004. Section A: an alphabetic Canaanite inscription, in Ussishkin, D. (ed.) The renewed archaeological excavations at Lachish (1973–1994): 15971600. Tel Aviv: Emery and Claire Yass Publications in Archaeology.Google Scholar
Lemaire, A. 2017. Alphabetic writing in the Mediterranean world: transmission and appropriation, in Halpern, B. & Sacks, K.S. (ed.) Cultural contact and appropriation in the axial-age Mediterranean world: a periplos: 103–15. Leiden: Brill.Google Scholar
Meyerhof, E.L. 1989. The Bronze Age necropolis at Kibbutz Hazorea, Israel. Oxford: Archaeopress. https://doi.org/10.30861/9780860546795CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Morenz, L.D. 2011. Die Genese der Alphabetschrift: ein Markstein ägyptisch-kanaanäischer Kulturkontakte. Würzburg: Ergon.Google Scholar
Naʾaman, N. 2020. Egyptian centres and the distribution of the alphabet in the Levant. Tel Aviv 47: 2954. https://doi.org/10.1080/03344355.2020.1707449CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Naveh, J. 1987. Early history of the alphabet: an introduction to west Semitic epigraphy and palaeography. Jerusalem: Magness.Google Scholar
Petrie, W.M.F. 1906. Researches in Sinai. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co.Google Scholar
Rainey, A.F. 2015. The El-Amarna correspondence: a new edition of the cuneiform letters from the site of El-Amarna based on collations of all extant tablets. Collated, transcribed and translated by Anson F. Rainey, edited by William Schniedewind and Zipora Cochavi-Rainey. Leiden: Brill.10.1163/9789004281547CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Reimer, P.J. et al. 2020. The IntCal20 Northern Hemisphere radiocarbon age calibration curve (0–55 cal kBP). Radiocarbon 62: 725–57. https://doi.org/10.1017/RDC.2020.41CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Sass, B. 1988. The genesis of the alphabet and its development in the second millennium BC. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.Google Scholar
Sass, B. 2004–2005. The genesis of the alphabet and its development in the second millennium BC: twenty years later. De Kêmi à Birīt Nāri 2: 147–66.Google Scholar
Sass, B., Garfinkel, Y., Hasel, M.G. & Klingbeil, M.G.. 2015. The Lachish jar sherd: an early alphabetic inscription discovered in 2014. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 374: 233–45. https://doi.org/10.5615/bullamerschoorie.374.0233CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Schneider, T. 2018. A double abecedary? Halaḥam and ʾAbgad on the TT99 Ostracon. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 379: 103–12. https://doi.org/10.5615/bullamerschoorie.379.0103CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Seger, J.D. 1983. The Gezer jar signs: new evidence of the earliest alphabet, in Meyers, C.L. & O'Conner, M. (ed.) The word of the Lord shall go forth: essays in honor of David Noel Freedman in celebration of his sixtieth birthday: 477–95. Winona Lake (IN): Eisenbrauns.Google Scholar
Seger, J.D. 2013. Gezer VII: the Middle Bronze and later fortifications in fields II, IV, and VIII. Winona Lake (IN): Eisenbrauns.Google Scholar
Singer-Avitz, L. 2004. The pottery of the Late Bronze I phase. Section B: the Cypriot Bichrome Ware, in Ussishkin, D. (ed.) The renewed archaeological excavations at Lachish (1973–1994): 1023–31. Tel Aviv: Emery and Claire Yass Publications in Archaeology.Google Scholar
Streit, K., Webster, L., Becker, V., Jeske, A.-K., Misgav, H. & Höflmayer, F.. 2018. Between destruction and diplomacy in Canaan: the Austro-Israeli expedition to Tel Lachish. Near Eastern Archaeology 81: 259–68. https://doi.org/10.5615/neareastarch.81.4.0259CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Sweeney, D. 2004. Section B: the Hieratic inscriptions, in Ussishkin, D. (ed.) The renewed archaeological excavations at Lachish (1973–1994): 1601–17. Tel Aviv: Emery and Claire Yass Publications in Archaeology.Google Scholar
Tigay, J.H. 1986. You shall have no other gods: Israelite religion in the light of Hebrew inscriptions. Atlanta: Scholars. https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004360440CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Tufnell, O. 1958. Lachish IV (Tell Ed-Duweir): the Bronze Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Tufnell, O., Inge, C.H. & Harding, G.L.. 1940. Lachish II (Tell ed Duweir): the Fosse temple. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Ussishkin, D. 2004a. The renewed archaeological excavations at Lachish (19731994). Tel Aviv: Emery and Claire Yass Publications in Archaeology.Google Scholar
Ussishkin, D. 2004b. A synopsis of the stratigraphical, chronological and historical issues, in Ussishkin, D. (ed.) The renewed archaeological excavations at Lachish (1973–1994): 50119. Tel Aviv: Emery and Claire Yass Publications in Archaeology.Google Scholar
Webster, L., Streit, K., Dee, M.W., Hajdas, I. & Höflmayer, F.. 2019. New radiocarbon-based assessment supports the prominence of Tel Lachish during the Late Bronze Age IB–IIA. Radiocarbon 61: 1711–27. https://doi.org/10.1017/RDC.2019.131CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Wimmer, S.J. 2001. Sichimitica Varia I: zur sog. Sichem-Plakette. Biblische Notizen 109: 2126.Google Scholar
Wimmer, S.J. & Wimmer-Dweikat, S.. 2001. The alphabet from Wadi el-Hôl: a first try. Göttinger Miszellen 180: 107–12.Google Scholar
Yannai, E. 2004. The Late Bronze Age pottery from area S, in Ussishkin, D. (ed.) The renewed archaeological excavations at Lachish (1973–1994): 1032–46. Tel Aviv: Emery and Claire Yass Publications in Archaeology.Google Scholar
Figure 0

Figure 1. Map of sites mentioned in the text (figure by M. Börner, Austrian Academy of Sciences).

Figure 1

Figure 2. Map of Lachish, with the excavation areas indicated (figure by A. Woitzuck, Austrian Academy of Sciences).

Figure 2

Table 1. Late Bronze Age stratigraphy of area S; the stratigraphic position of the find context (S-3b) is highlighted; LB = Late Bronze, IA = Iron Age.

Figure 3

Figure 3. Area S, looking west. Early Late Bronze Age fortification, with the southern wall of building 100 (L1027) on the right side (figure by J. Dye & L. Webster, Austrian Academy of Sciences).

Figure 4

Figure 4. Plan of stratum S-3 in area S, with the findspot of the early alphabetic inscription indicated (B10696) (figure by A. Woitzuck, Austrian Academy of Sciences).

Figure 5

Figure 5. Radiocarbon dates associated with the early alphabetic inscription (dates calibrated using OxCal v.4.4.2 and the IntCal20 calibration curve; Bronk Ramsey 2009; Reimer et al. 2020) (figure by L. Webster, Austrian Academy of Sciences).

Figure 6

Figure 6. Radiocarbon Bayesian model for area S highlighting the constraining effect on the inscription's deposition date: light-shaded areas represent individual calibrated radiocarbon determinations; dark-shaded areas represent modelled calibrated radiocarbon determinations based on the prior information (the stratigraphic sequence) entered into the model (modelled using OxCal v.4.4.2 and the IntCal20 calibration curve; Bronk Ramsey 2009; Reimer et al. 2020) (figure by L. Webster, Austrian Academy of Sciences).

Figure 7

Figure 7. Early alphabetic inscription on a White Slip II rim sherd (figure by J. Dye, Austrian Academy of Sciences).

You have Access
Open access

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure no-reply@cambridge.org is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the @free.kindle.com or @kindle.com variations. ‘@free.kindle.com’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘@kindle.com’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

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

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

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

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

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

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *