What was your coolest archaeological find

Ceramic shard from Israel rewrites the history of the alphabet

As far as we know today, the history of the alphabet began around 1800 BC on the Egyptian peninsula of Sinai. At that time, West Asian workers who were involved in Egyptian mining expeditions developed a series of letters from hieroglyphs. It was not until 600 years later that this early alphabetic script became widespread in the Levant and eventually developed into the Hebrew, Greek and Latin alphabet. Austrian archaeologists have now in Israel with a to 1450 BC Ceramics dated and inscribed a significantly earlier evidence of this writing in the region and thus discovered a "missing link" in the spread of the alphabet.

Since 2017, scientists from the Austrian Archaeological Institute (ÖAI) of the Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) have been digging in Tel Lachisch, one of the most important Bronze and Iron Age sites in present-day Israel, around 40 kilometers southwest of Jerusalem. The main goal of the project, financed by the Austrian Science Fund FWF, is to solve a dating problem, explains Felix Höflmayer, who leads the excavation together with Katharina Streit. It is about settlement layers in the south elevation at the transition from the Middle to the Late Bronze Age in the middle of the second millennium BC. u. Z., which contain massive traces of destruction.

Traces of destruction

Around this time, around 1550 BC. C.E., the foreign rule of the Hyksos from western Asia in northern Egypt had come to an end. The Egyptians pursued the Hyksos as far as the southern Levante, besieged cities there and destroyed them. When the ÖAI researchers attempted to accurately date the remains of this destruction in Tel Lachisch, they came across a monumental building from the Late Bronze Age (15th to 14th centuries B.C.E.). The excavation also brought to light another find: a ceramic fragment, described with early alphabet characters.

"This pottery shard is one of the earliest examples of alphabetic writing that was found in Israel," says Höflmayer. With the help of the radiocarbon method, the find layer of the almost four centimeter large sherd could be traced back to 1450 BC. and are dated. "Its very presence makes us rethink the origins and distribution of the early alphabet in the Middle East," says Höflmayer, who has now published the discovery with his colleagues in the specialist journal "Antiquity".

Alphabetical ancestor

According to the current state of research, the origins of our alphabet go back to Canaanites from Western Asia who mined copper or turquoise for Egypt on the Sinai peninsula. Surrounded by inscriptions in Egyptian hieroglyphs, these workers began to translate the hundreds of pictorial hieroglyphs into their language. Then they linked the first sound of this word with the corresponding image - researchers call this the "acrophonic principle".

This early alphabet, also called Protosinaitic script with a little more than 20 characters, was used in the 11th century BC at the latest. Abstracted by the Phoenicians C.E. This Phoenician script then formed the basis for the Hebrew, Greek and Latin alphabet. "Ultimately, we don't write anything other than modified hieroglyphs, the concept is still the same," says Höflmayer.

According to previous archaeological finds, the first early alphabetic writing only appeared 600 years later in the south elevation, the researcher explained. "Up to now, no one knew whether it had been forgotten again in the meantime or whether the sources simply weren't preserved." It was assumed that the script developed with the Egyptian rule in the 14th or 13th century BC. u. Z. has spread in the south Levante. The one from 1450 BC. However, the shard from below shows "that this script penetrated this region much earlier, regardless of the Egyptian dominance, and one must therefore ask the question of the spread of the alphabet from scratch".

Written coexistence

In addition, the scientists made finds with so-called hieratic script in the same shift. While the generally known hieroglyphs can be found on monuments, hieratic script is the everyday handwriting of the Egyptians. For Höflmayer, these findings show "that in Tel Lachisch both the hieroglyphic and the alphabetical spelling existed at the same time at a certain point in time".

The archaeologists were also able to gain initial knowledge about the origin of the sherd described. It is believed to have come from an imported Cypriot bowl, the inside of which was written in dark ink. A few diagonally written letters have been preserved on the find itself. The exact meaning of the inscription is still a mystery. (red, APA, April 15, 2021)