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November 22, 1999
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Alphabet Originated Centuries Earlier
Sometime during the beginning of the second millennium B.C., long
ancient biblical times, a traveler passing through a desert
valley of what
is now southern Egypt, stopped at a rock and inscribed on it his
title and probably a short prayer for safe passage.
The discovery of this traveler's ancient calling card, and
similar to it, indicates that the first alphabet -- from which
alphabets have evolved -- is centuries older than previously
was probably invented in Egypt, not, as previously thought, in
Region, what is now Syria, Lebanon and Israel. Until now,
that the forefather of written Hebrew, Arabic, Greek -- virtually
alphabets, including ours -- was invented in the 1700s B.C. The
inscriptions in Egypt now point towards an origin in the 1900s
The significance of the discovery was determined by a team of
The Johns Hopkins University, Yale University, Princeton
Seminary and the West Semitic Research Project in California. The
presented its findings at an American Oriental Society conference
"These inscriptions are for epigraphers what Lucy was for
palaeontologists," said Kyle McCarter Jr., the William Foxwell
Chair in Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern
Studies at Johns Hopkins
University and an expert in epigraphy, the study of ancient
writings (pictured at right).
The inscriptions were discovered in the summer of 1998 in a
called, in Arabic, "The Valley of Horrors." The finder was
John Darnell, an assistant professor at Yale and former Hopkins
Darnell, who stumbled across the rock while surveying the area,
unfamiliar with the writings. When he returned to the United
brought photos of them to Chip Dobbs-Allsopp, who studies the
the Iron Age, or ancient Biblical times.
Dobbs-Allsopp, who received his graduate degree at Hopkins and is
assistant professor at Princeton Theological Seminary,
suspected that these inscriptions predated anything seen before.
contacted McCarter, his mentor at Hopkins and one of the few
people in the
world who can decipher archaic alphabetic inscriptions. McCarter,
translated some of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other artifacts, has
of his career tracking down the origins of the alphabet.
"Until now, we believed that the alphabet had been invented by
Semitic-speaking people of the Levant Valley, who were inspired
Egyptian hieroglyphics," McCarter said. "This discovery suggests
was invented at least two centuries earlier that we believed. It
us that the alphabet was probably invented in Egypt by some of
Semitic-speaking people who lived or worked in Egypt."
Last summer, accompanied by Egyptian soldiers for protection, a
scientists including Darnell, Dobbs-Allsopp and Bruce Zuckerman
Lundberg of the West Semitic Research Project of the University
California, visited the desert valley site to record the
area can be dangerous; it is an inhospitable, sparsely populated
southern Egypt. Especially threatening are some of its
snakes and scorpions and desert animals that come out at night.
worked there for several days in 120 degree heat, taking high
photographs and documenting the inscriptions.
Translating the inscriptions is tricky, said McCarter.
"The earliest examples of a writing system can never quite be
isn't until later when the system becomes conventionalized that
of a clear reading become more likely," he said. "However, it
some clear elements of Semitic writing, like the words ‘god' and
and a few others. With our limited understanding of the words,
there is a
fear of forcing an interpretation of the inscription. But I think
safely say that it is an inscription of the two men's personal
titles and possibly a prayer to a local god."
McCarter believes that a better translation will come, however,
early alphabet becomes better understood and more examples are
Print or high-resolution digitalized images of the inscriptions
available upon request. Contact Leslie Rice. Professor McCarter
will be available for interviews beginning Tuesday, Nov. 23.
West Semitic Research Project of the University of Southern
California (special photography techniques used to capture
images of inscription)
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