Beginning of alphabet uncovered

Writing: Inscriptions found in Egypt are believed to be the oldest examples of symbols that became the basis of modern writing.

November 13, 1999|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

A bit of graffiti carved on a rock in a remote desert area of Egypt nearly 4,000 years ago has forced historians and archaeologists to change their theories on when and where the alphabet originated.

"This is as close as we have come to the invention of the alphabet," said P. Kyle McCarter, a Johns Hopkins University professor who has examined the inscriptions, which represent the prototype of all modern alphabets -- Hebrew, Greek, Cyrillic and Roman.

They were found five years ago by John Darnell, an assistant professor at Yale University who spends several months each year in Egypt recording inscriptions at remote sites that are vulnerable to vandals and thieves.

Darnell, an Egyptologist who received bachelor's and master's degrees from Hopkins in 1985, thought the odd squiggles he noticed in the midst of some hieroglyphic writings were examples of an early alphabet, but it was not until he showed photographs to a colleague at Yale that their full significance was understood.

"He asked me to take a look at these things last fall," said that colleague, Chip Dobbs-Allsopp. "He knew they weren't Egyptian."

Dobbs-Allsopp, an expert in Semitic writings who is now at Princeton, saw the resemblance to what were then considered the earliest examples of alphabet writing, which had been found in a mining site in the Sinai. To be certain, he showed the photographs to McCarter, with whom he had worked while getting his doctorate at Hopkins.

"It was very clear this was some sort of early alphabetic writing," McCarter said.

What makes these inscriptions particularly exciting is that they can be dated with relative preciseness to around 1800 B.C., because Egyptologists know the age of the inscriptions that surround them.

The alphabetical writings found in the Sinai, mostly graffiti carved by miners working in a turquoise mine, were thought to date to around 1500 B.C.

"We'll probably push that back a couple hundred years now," Dobbs-Allsopp said.

The location of these new inscriptions was equally intriguing. Previously, scholars thought that the alphabet, though showing clear evidence of Egyptian influence, was invented in the area of Canaan, modern-day Israel and the West Bank. Those responsible for the graffiti at the Sinai mine were thought to be workers from Canaan who brought that form of writing with them.

The new inscriptions are still considered the work of a Canaanite, but their location indicates that this early form of the alphabet might have been developed by these foreigners while in Egypt.

Darnell said that they were found in what was a busy highway 4,000 years ago, a trade and military route connecting the Nile, some desert outposts and the major city of Thebes, modern-day Luxor.

"Much of what we find here are people inscribing their names and the names of their families," Darnell said. "They wanted people to read them because if your name was spoken after you died, it helped insure that you had a more meaningful afterlife."

Near the site of the alphabetical writings -- which have not been fully translated, but are probably someone's name and title -- Darnell found another inscription that referred to the Egyptian boss of the Canaanites.

That juxtaposition led to the inference that the alphabet inscription was by a Canaanite traveling on this road.

"It was probably a mercenary soldier," said Darnell. "Maybe a Bedouin who traveled with Egyptian soldiers providing support services."

The alphabet, Darnell said, might have been a simple way for these foreigners to use some of the hieroglyphic symbols to write their own language.

"I am partial to Egypt, so I am glad to see it get credit for another first, the place where the alphabet was invented," he said.

As McCarter explained it, hieroglyphics -- and the more vernacular form, hieratics -- had elements of phonetic spelling but also used pictographs in complicated combinations to express words and ideas.

By using a limited set of characters to represent only sounds -- often a form of the hieroglyphic symbol for the word that begins with that sound -- the alphabet simplified the writing and reading process.

"The development of the alphabet was the great democratization of literacy," McCarter said. "Before, only those who spent their entire life studying could read and write. With the alphabet, it was possible for almost anyone to learn."

Darnell and his colleagues kept the nature and location of the find secret until top-quality photographs could be made this past summer.

They will present a paper on the inscriptions to a scholarly convention this month.

"We actually had to fight off the thieves with picks and clubs the first time we went to this site," Darnell said.

Some inscriptions, he said, have been sawed off for sale on the antiquities market. Others now are simply scratched out, vandalism that the thieves use to pass the time while camping in the desert.

"We try to photograph and copy everything we can," he said. "When we see something that has been destroyed, we can only wonder what was there."

Darnell is hoping the significance of the find will lead the Egyptian government to provide security for this area.

"They simply have too many sites to guard them all," he said.

But he will also try to secure permission from the Egyptian government to carve out the inscriptions and move them to a museum, if it can be done without damaging them.

"We are reluctant to do that because the rock is very friable," Darnell said. "But if we can do it safely, we will."

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