The Johns Hopkins Gazette: November 29, 1999
November 29, 1999
VOL. 29, NO. 13


Alphabet's History Rewritten By Finding

Professor and former Hopkins students date writings to 1900 B.C.

By Leslie Rice

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Sometime during the beginning of the second millennium B.C., long before 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 name, his title and probably a short prayer for safe passage.

The discovery of this traveler's ancient calling card, and another similar one found on a rock nearby, offers new clues to the origins of the alphabet, said Kyle McCarter Jr., the William Foxwell Albright Chair in Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies and an expert in epigraphy, or the study of ancient writings. The inscriptions indicate that the first alphabet--from which all modern alphabets have evolved--is centuries older than previously believed and was probably invented in Egypt, not, as previously believed, in the Levant region, or what is now modern-day Syria, Lebanon and Israel. Until now, scholars believed that the forefather of written Hebrew, Arabic, Greek--virtually all alphabets, including ours--was invented in the 1700s B.C. The Egypt inscriptions now point the alphabets' origins toward the 1900s B.C.

Kyle McCarter

The significance of the discovery was made by a team of scholars from Hopkins, Yale University, Princeton Theological Seminary and the West Semitic Research Project in California. The group presented their findings Nov. 22 at an American Oriental Society conference, and details of the discovery were reported on page 1 of The New York Times and The Sun and in other publications around the world.

"These inscriptions are for epigraphers what Lucy was for paleontologists," McCarter said. They were discovered by Egyptologist John Darnell, an assistant professor at Yale and former Hopkins undergrad, in the summer of 1998 in a desert valley called in Arabic "The Valley of Horrors." Darnell, who stumbled across the rock while surveying the area, was unfamiliar with the writings. When he returned to the United States, he brought photos of them to Chip Dobbs-Allsopp, who studies the writings of the Iron Age, or ancient biblical times.

Dobbs-Allsopp, who received his graduate degree at Hopkins and is now an assistant professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, immediately suspected that these inscriptions predated anything seen before. He contacted McCarter, his mentor at Hopkins and one of the few people in the world who can decipher archaic alphabetic inscriptions. McCarter, who has translated some of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other artifacts, has spent much 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 by the Egyptian hieroglyphics," McCarter said. "This discovery suggests that it was invented at least two centuries earlier than we believed. It also tells us that the alphabet was probably invented in Egypt by some of the many Semitic-speaking people who lived or worked in Egypt."

Last summer, accompanied for protection by Egyptian soldiers, a team of scientists including Darnell, Dobbs-Allsopp, and Bruce Zuckerman and Marilyn Lundberg of the West Semitic Research Project of the University of Southern California visited the desert valley site to record the inscriptions. The area can be a dangerous one; it is an inhospitable, sparsely populated region in southern Egypt. Especially threatening are some of its inhabitants: deadly snakes and scorpions and desert animals that come out at night. The group worked there for several days in 120 degree heat, taking high-resolution photographs and documenting the inscription.

Translating the inscriptions is tricky, McCarter said.

"The earliest examples of a writing system can never quite be read; it isn't until later when the system becomes conventionalized that the chances of a clear reading become more likely," he said. "However, it does bear some clear elements of Semitic writing, like the words "God" and "chief" 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 we can safely say that it is an inscription of the two men's personal names, their titles and possibly a prayer to a local God."

McCarter believes that a better translation will come, however, as the early alphabet becomes better understood and more examples are found.