A team of archaeologists from the Austrian Archaeological Institute and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute of Archaeology has discovered an inscribed sherd at the site of Tel Lachish, which is located in the Shephelah region in modern-day Israel and is one of the most prominent Bronze and Iron Age sites of the Southern Levant. Dating to the 15th century BCE, the newly-discovered inscription is currently the oldest securely dated alphabetic inscription from the Southern Levant.
The 3,450-year-old alphabetic inscription on a sherd from Tel Lachish, Israel. Image credit: J. Dye, Austrian Academy of Sciences.
“This sherd is one of the earliest examples of early alphabetic writing found in Israel,” said lead author Dr. Felix Höflmayer, a researcher at the Austrian Archaeological Institute.
The inscribed sherd is an approximately 4 by 3.5 cm rim fragment from a milk bowl imported from Cyprus.
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,” Dr. Höflmayer and his colleagues explained.
“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 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.’ 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.’ 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.’ The suggested reading for this line may therefore be עבד, meaning ‘slave,’ and could be part of a personal name.”
“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.’ 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’ has been suggested. This sign is uncommon in Middle Kingdom inscriptions from Sinai and may represent a building tool.
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.’
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.”
The inscription is approximately 3,450 years old, making it the oldest securely dated alphabetic inscription from the Southern Levant, and may be regarded as the ‘missing link’ in the alphabet’s history.
“The early alphabet developed in association with Canaanite miners in Sinai — or, at least, was taken up by them — during the Middle Kingdom in the 18th century BCE,” the archaeologists said.
“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-15th century BCE at Tel Lachish.”
“Thus, the proliferation into the Southern Levant probably happened during the 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 alphabetic inscription from Tel Lachish provides fresh evidence to contextualize 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,” they added.
“Furthermore, the new early alphabetic inscription dates to a period that also saw the earliest attested hieratic writing at Tel Lachish, and when Lachish is mentioned for the first time in Egyptian sources during the reign of Amenhotep II.”
“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 19th and 20th dynasties (the 13th and 20th centuries BCE).”
The findings were published in the journal Antiquity.
Felix Höflmayer et al. Early alphabetic writing in the ancient Near East: the ‘missing link’ from Tel Lachish. Antiquity, published online April 15, 2021; doi: 10.15184/aqy.2020.157