[b]DATA FROM THE BOOK: Sticks, stones, and shadows: building the Egyptian
"Discoveries by Gunter Dreyer of the German Archaeological Institute suggest that the origin of Egyptian writing needs to be reexamined, offering the possibility that the idea of writing was developed in Egypt several centuries before it occurred in the Near East. Inscriptions from hundreds of pots and labels found at the royal cemetery at Abydos show some hieroglyphic writing as far back as 3400 BCE, with most occurring about 3200 BCE. Sumerian writing seems to have begun about 3100 BCE. The Egyptians formed and used writing in a different way than the Asians. The linguistic pictographs of Sumer were rudimentary were used primarily used for commerce. Those of Egypt were more representational of real objects and were primarily employed to identify kings, tombs and the like.
A remarkable find involving early experiments with alphabetic writing in Egypt has been recently made by John C. Darnell, an Egyptologist at Yale University, and his wife Deborah. Inscriptions discovered in the limestone cliffs on an ancient road between Thebes and Abydos, a route once heavily traveled by Asian traders and mercenaries in the Egyptian desert, are in a Semitic script with Egyptian influences. Dated between 1900 and 1000 BCE, they are two or three centuries older than previous evidence of an alphabet in the Semitic-speaking territory of the Sinai Peninsula or in the Syria-Palestine region occupied by the Canaanites. While there have always been indications that Semites were inventors of the alphabet, researchers had heretofore assumed that it was developed in their own lands by borrowing and simplifying Egyptian hieroglyphs. Instead Darnell's discovery now suggests that, working with Semitic speakers in Egypt, native scribes simplified formal pictographic Egyptian writing and modified the symbols into an early alphabet using a semi-cursive form commonly used in the Middle Kingdom."
--Martin Isler (2001). Sticks, stones, and shadows: building the Egyptian pyramids. UNiv of Oklahoma PRess. p. 56
DATA FROM THE BOOK "LANGUAGE VISIBLE" - INSPIRATION FOR MODERN ALPHABET FLOWED FROM EGYPT
"For the rest of the 20th century, at least through the
year 1999, books and articles on the early alphabet took
their cur from the Canaanite evidence. Your local
library has a whole shelf of books containing the theory
that the alphabet was invented in the Levant, around
1700B.C. Yes, it was inspired partly by Egyptian
hieroglyphics (the theory allows), but the inventors
were looking at imported Egyptian scrolls and
By 1998, Darnell and others had reached a couple of
dramatic conclusions. First, the two inscriptions are
probably the oldest alphabetic writing yet discovered,
certainly the oldest that can be dated confidently: They
were carved in about 1800 B.C., give or take a century.
More important, the inscriptions can be viewed as
signposts that point directly back to the alphabet's
invention. On the basis of the Wadi el-Hol evidence,
that invention is now assigned to around 2000 B.C. in
Egypt - about three centuries earlier (and in a different
country) than previously thought. "Finds in Egypt Date
Alphabet in Earlier Era.: announced the front-page New
York Times headline of a November 1999 piece
reporting on the work.
The evidence is in the letter shapes, Darnell explains.
Study has confirmed that every letter of the two
inscriptions is copied from some preexisting symbol in
Egyptian rock-writing and/or hieroglyphics. This is
where the inventors and early users of the alphabet
found their letter shapes.
Certain Wadi el-Hol letter shapes suggest a particular
moment in time when that copying occurred. We know
enough about Egyptian rock writing to track the
evolution of its symbols, and several Wadi el-Hol
letters clearly reflect Egyptian symbol forms of the
early, Middle Kingdom, around 2000 B.C. Yet the
Wadi el-Hol writing preserves letter shapes bequeathed
from the alphabet's invention, around 2000 B.C."
"Who were the inventors? Darnell believes they may
have been in the Egyptian army: Semitic mercenaries or
similar, whom the Egyptians would have called Amu
(Asiatics). These peoples were illiterate originally. But
the army that they joined happened to have a vigorous
writing method for themselves. Perhaps the inventors
were junior officers among the Amu, individuals who
had learned some standard Egyptian rock-writing and
were able to work from there. Perhaps, Darnell
theorizes, they got help from Egyptian army scribes,
who sought to improve the foreigner’s organization
with the gift of literacy.
As to who might have carved the two Wadi el-Hol
inscriptions, same answer as above. Not the inventors
themselves, of course, but their
great-great-great-grandnephews, serving in Egypt’s
camel corps. It was the army that did most of the
writing along desert roads."
--David Sacks (2003). Language visible: unraveling the
mystery of the alphabet from A to Z. Random House.
[b]Finds in Egypt Date Alphabet In Earlier Era
By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD
Published: November 14, 1999[/b]
On the track of an ancient road in the desert west of the
Nile, where soldiers, couriers and traders once traveled
from Thebes to Abydos, Egyptologists have found
limestone inscriptions that they say are the earliest
known examples of alphabetic writing.
Their discovery is expected to help fix the time and
place for the origin of the alphabet, one of the foremost
innovations of civilization.
Carved in the cliffs of soft stone, the writing, in a
Semitic script with Egyptian influences, has been dated
to somewhere between 1900 and 1800 B.C., two or
three centuries earlier than previously recognized uses
of a nascent alphabet. The first experiments with
alphabet thus appeared to be the work of Semitic people
living deep in Egypt, not in their homelands in the
Syria-Palestine region, as had been thought.
Although the two inscriptions have yet to be translated,
other evidence at the discovery site supports the idea of
the alphabet as an invention by workaday people that
simplified and democratized writing, freeing it from the
elite hands of official scribes. As such, alphabetic
writing was revolutionary in a sense comparable to the
invention of the printing press much later.
Alphabetic writing emerged as a kind of shorthand by
which fewer than 30 symbols, each one representing a
single sound, could be combined to form words for a
wide variety of ideas and things. This eventually
replaced writing systems like Egyptian hieroglyphics in
which hundreds of pictographs, or idea pictures, had to
''These are the earliest alphabetic inscriptions,
considerably earlier than anyone had thought likely,''
Dr. John Coleman Darnell, an Egyptologist at Yale
University, said last week in an interview about the
''They seem to provide us with evidence to tell us when
the alphabet itself was invented, and just how.''
Dr. Darnell and his wife, Deborah, a Ph.D. student in
Egyptology, made the find while conducting a survey of
ancient travel routes in the desert of southern Egypt,
across from the royal city of Thebes and beyond the
pharaohs' tombs in the Valley of the Kings. In the
1993-94 season, they came upon walls of limestone
marked with graffiti at the forlorn Wadi el-Hol, roughly
translated as Gulch of Terror.
Last summer, the Darnells returned to the wadi with
several specialists in early writing. A report on their
findings will be given in Boston on Nov. 22 at a
meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature.
Working in the baking June heat ''about as far out in the
middle of nowhere as I ever want to be,'' Dr. Bruce
Zuckerman, director of the West Semitic Research
Project at the University of Southern California,
assisted the investigation by taking detailed pictures of
the inscriptions for analysis using computerized
photointerpretation techniques. ''This is fresh meat for
the alphabet people,'' he said.
''Because of the early date of the two inscriptions and
the place they were found,'' said Dr. P. Kyle McCarter
Jr., a professor of Near Eastern studies at Johns
Hopkins University. ''it forces us to reconsider a lot of
questions having to do with the early history of the
alphabet. Things I wrote only two years ago I now
consider out of date.''
Dr. Frank M. Cross, an emeritus professor of Near
Eastern languages and culture at Harvard University,
who was not a member of the research team but who
has examined the evidence, judged the inscriptions
''clearly the oldest of alphabetic writing and very
important.'' He said that enough of the symbols in the
inscriptions were identical or similar to later Semitic
alphabetic writing to conclude that ''this belongs to a
single evolution of the alphabet.''
The previously oldest evidence for an alphabet, dated
about 1600 B.C., was found near or in Semitic-speaking
territory, in the Sinai Peninsula and farther north in the
Syria-Palestine region occupied by the ancient
Canaanites. These examples, known as Proto-Sinaitic
and Proto-Canaanite alphabetic inscriptions, were the
basis for scholars' assuming that Semites developed the
alphabet by borrowing and simplifying Egyptian
hieroglyphs, but doing this in their own lands and not in
From other, nonalphabetic writing at the site, the
Egyptologists determined that the inscriptions were
made during Egypt's Middle Kingdom in the first two
centuries of the second millennium B.C. And another
discovery in June by the Darnells seemed to establish
the presence of Semitic people at the wadi at the time of
Surveying a few hundred yards from the site, the
Darnells found an inscription in nonalphabetic Egyptian
that started with the name of a certain Bebi, who called
himself ''general of the Asiatics.'' This was a term used
for nearly all foreigners, most of whom were Semites,
and many of them served as mercenary soldiers for
Egyptian rulers at a time of raging civil strife or came as
miners and merchants. Another reference to this Bebi
has been found in papyrus records.
''This gives us 99.9 percent certainty,'' Dr. Darnell said
of the conclusion that early alphabetic writing was
developed by Semitic-speaking people in an Egyptian
context. He surmised that scribes in the troops of
mercenaries probably developed the simplified writing
along the lines of a semicursive form of Egyptian
commonly used in the Middle Kingdom in graffiti.
Working with Semitic speakers, the scribes simplified
the pictographs of formal writing and modified the
symbols into an early form of alphabet.
''It was the accidental genius of these Semitic people
who were at first illiterate, living in a very literate
society,'' Dr. McCarter said, interpreting how the
alphabet may have arisen. ''Only a scribe trained over a
lifetime could handle the many different types of signs
in the formal writing. So these people adopted a crude
system of writing within the Egyptian system,
something they could learn in hours, instead of a
lifetime. It was a utilitarian invention for soldiers,
The scholars who have examined the short Wadi el-Hol
inscriptions are having trouble deciphering the
messages, though they think they are close to
understanding some letters and words. ''A few of these
signs just jump out at you, at anyone familiar with
proto-Sinaitic material,'' said Dr. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp,
who teaches at the Princeton Theological Seminary in
New Jersey and is a specialist in the languages and
history of the Middle East. ''They look just like one
The symbol for M in the inscriptions, for example, is a
wavy line derived from the hieroglyphic sign for water
and almost identical to the symbol for M in later
Semitic writing. The meaning of some signs is less
certain. The figure of a stick man, with arms raised,
appears to have developed into an H in the alphabet, for
Scholars said they could identify shapes of letters that
eventually evolved from the image of an ox head into A
and from a house, which looks more like a 9 here, into
the Semitic B, or bayt. The origins and transitions of A
and B are particularly interesting because the
Egyptian-influenced Semitic alphabet as further
developed by the Phoenicians, latter-day Canaanites,
was passed to the Greeks, probably as early as the 12th
century B.C. and certainly by the 9th century B.C. From
the Greeks the simplified writing system entered
Western culture by the name alphabet, a combination
word for the Greek A and B, alpha and beta.
The only words in the inscriptions the researchers think
they understand are, reading right to left, the title for a
chief in the beginning and a reference to a god at the
If the early date for the inscriptions is correct, this puts
the origins of alphabetic writing well before the
probable time of the biblical story of Joseph being
delivered by his brothers into Egyptian bondage, the
scholars said. The Semites involved in the alphabet
invention would have been part of an earlier population
of alien workers in Egypt.
Although it is still possible that the Semites took the
alphabet idea with them to Egypt, Dr. McCarter of
Johns Hopkins said that the considerable evidence of
Egyptian symbols and the absence of any contemporary
writing of a similar nature anywhere in the
Syria-Palestine lands made this unlikely.
The other earliest primitive writing, the cuneiform
developed by Sumerians in the Tigris and Euphrates
Valley of present-day Iraq, remained entirely
pictographic until about 1400 B.C. The Sumerians are
generally credited with the first invention of writing,
around 3200 B.C., but some recent findings at Abydos
in Egypt suggest a possibly earlier origin there. The
issue is still controversial.
For Dr. Darnell, though, it is exciting enough to learn
that in a forsaken place like Wadi el-Hol, along an old
desert road, people showed they had taken a major step
in written communication. He is returning to the site
next month for further exploration.
[b]EGYPTIAN WRITING SYSTEMS BEFORE
[b]Linguistic writing systems and population
The southern area of the Nile Valley not only produced
advanced material culture and political organization but
also pioneered in the advancement of learning and
communication via writing, contradicting claims of an
outside Mediterranean or Mesopotamian influx
responsible for such developments. In 1998 a German
archaeological team under scholar Günter Dreyer, head
of the German Archaeological Institute, excavated
tombs associated with the Naqada culture and retrieved
hundreds of clay artifacts inscribed with
proto-hieroglyphs, dating to the 33rd century BC.
Of Dreyer's finds, Archaeology Magazine states that
they "...challenge the commonly held belief that early
logographs, pictographic symbols representing a
specific place, object, or quantity, first evolved into
more complex phonetic symbols in
The early examples appear to have been building blocks
for later development into the full complex of
hieroglyphs for inscribing the ancient Egyptian
language, showing a measure of continuity into
the period of the pharaohs. According to Dreyer, these
continuities provide evidence that the writing used later
by Egyptian kingships developed gradually in the native
environment. "Most of them are documents, records of
linen and oil delivered to the King Scorpion, taxes,
short notes, numbers, lists of kings' names, and names
of institutions.. The writing is in the form of line
drawings of animals, plants and mountains and is the
earliest evidence that hieroglyphics used by later-day
Pharaonic dynasties did not rise as phoenix from the
ashes but developed gradually.. Although the Egyptian
writing is in the form of symbols it can be called true
writing because each symbol stands for a consonant and
makes up syllables. In principle Ancient Egyptians were
able to express themselves clearly.." According to
mainstream Egyptologist Kent Weeks, professor of
Egyptology at the American University in Cairo,
Dreyer's data suggests "one of the greatest discoveries
in history of writing and ancient Egyptian culture."
Dreyer has moved beyond his early findings to postulate
that the Egyptians were the first in the world to develop
systematic writing as opposed to the commonly held
view that the Mesopotamians did. Some Egyptian
archaeology authorities appear to support Dreyer's
hypothesis of Egyptian primacy. According to a 1999
statement by one Gaballa Ali Gaballa, secretary-general
of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities:
"The earliest known Sumerian writings date back to 3000BC
while the German team's find shows that Abydos
inscriptions date to 3400BC. The first Pharaonic
dynasty began in 2920BC with King Menes. The
earliest known writing in Dynasty Zero is much earlier
than the oldest writing discovered in Mesopotamia."
While scholarly debate and research continues on the
topic, but the presence of the ancient writings
from very early times provides yet more evidence
against the notion of a "Dynastic Race" sweeping into
the Nile Valley to give the natives advanced culture like
writing. Rather the evidence indicates the opposite, and
emphasizes the primarily indigenous nature of Egyptian
[b]Language similarities among the Nilotic peoples. [/b]
Modern scholarship has moved away from earlier
notions of a "Hamitic" race speaking Hamito-Semitic
languages, and places the Egyptian language in a more
localized context, centered around its general Saharan
and Nilotic roots.(F. Yurco "An Egyptological Review",
1996) Linguistic analysis (Diakanoff 1998) places
most of the origin of the Afro-Asiatic languages wholly
within Africa, primarily in the southeastern Sahara or
adjacent Horn of Africa, with Semitic groupings
straddling the Nile Delta and Sinai.
Other recent research demonstrates several African
languages that share features with Egyptian, such as the
Chadic languages of west and central Africa, the
Cushitic languages of northeast Africa, and the Semitic
languages of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Acceptance of
an African origin for the Afro-Asiatic language
grouping (of which ancient Egyptian is a part) is
widespread among most mainstream scholars.
151. ^ Gunter Dreyer, Umm El-Quaab I-Das
pradynastische Konigsgrab U-j and seine fruhen
Schriftzeugnisse (1998)- translation: Umm El-Quaab
I-The Predynastic Royal Tomb U-j and Its Early
Writing-Evidence]; see also Allen, James Paul. 2000.
Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and
Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, pp. 1-20
152. ^ Larkin Mitchell, "Earliest Egyptian Glyphs,"
Archaeology, Volume 52 Number 2, March/April 1999
153. ^ Dreyer, Allen, op. cit
154. ^ Nevine El-Aref, "Did writing originate in
Egypt?" Al-Ahram Weekly: 1 - 7 April 1999, Issue No.
155. ^ "Egyptian writing dating to 3300 B.C.
discovered," The Japan Times, December 17, 1998
156. ^ Nevine El-Aref, "Did writing originate in
Egypt?" op. cit
157. ^ Nevine El-Aref, "Did writing originate in
Egypt?" Al-Ahram Weekly: 1 - 7 April 1999, Issue No.
158. ^ Larkin, op. cit. Archaelogy..
159. ^ Yurco, op. cit.
160. ^ M.Diakonoff, "THE EARLIEST SEMITIC
SOCIETY LINGUISTIC DATA," Journal of Semitic
Studies, 43,209 (1998)
161. ^ Russell G. Schuh, "The Use and Misuse of
language in the study of African history" (1997), in:
162. ^ "The Afroasiatic Language Phylum: African in
Origin, or Asian?" Daniel F. Mc Call, Current
Anthropology, Vol. 39, No. 1 (Feb., 1998), pp. 139-144
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