Note that this is work in progress; I am posting it at this stage so that you can see where I am coming from and where I am going to; I hope I will not spoil your search for truth if I tell you now that I am ultimately going to demonstrate ("prove" and end with QED, quod erat demonstrandun) that the script on this sherd is not consonantal alphabetic, as is widely and thoughtlessly claimed; and the same applies to the talismanic cylinders from Tuba (Tell Umm el-Marra in Syria); in both cases the writing is syllabic. If you have fallen into the trap of "pan-alphabeticism", an obsessive compulsion disorder, and can only see "Early Alphabetic" in ancient West Semitic syllabic and consonantal texts, then I am here to help you out of this pandemic ordeal; with your compunction and our shared compassion, this ailment can be cured, and the masks concealing shamefaced countenances can be removed.
Here we go again: from the ruin-mound of ancient Lakish (modern Tel Lachish in Israel) a sherd with yet another antique West Semitic inscription has been brought to light, and published aptly in the journal Antiquity, and also conveniently put on open internet access by Cambridge University Press. (15 April 2021)
We can see from these two titles that the four authors are promoting it as "the missing link" in the early development of the alphabet; I would think that it is another link in a different chain, and not the alphabetic chain they have in mind. However, they argue that the Carbon 14 method of dating is now more reliable, and so they can assert: "Dating to the fifteenth century BC, this inscription is currently the
oldest securely dated alphabetic inscription from the Southern Levant,
and may therefore be regarded as the ‘missing link’."
Regrettably, from my viewing point, some "fake news" and "alternate facts" are lurking here, although this was not the intention of the authors; what I mean is that Haggai Misgav and the rest of the team have jumped to the incorrect conclusion; in football terms, he has scored an own goal, by mistakenly kicking the ball into the wrong net; in plain language, they have not asked the absolutely necessary question: Is this text syllabic or consonantal? Complying with the deplorable custom and lamentable practice in the infertile field of West Semitic epigraphy, they have simply assumed that it is alphabetical, that is, consonantal, where each letter represents a consonant; but it is actually a syllabic text, in which each character is a syllabogram, representing a syllable (consonant plus one of three vowels: BU, BA, BI). Consequently, their identifications for its letters will be entirely erroneous, and their attempt to determine its place in the early history of the alphabet will be replete with alternative facts, in the sense of irrelevant data (including a swarm of speculations, leading to them gambling recklessly, and backing the wrong horse on the wrong course); pardon my coarse language. Needless to say, no mention is made of any published research results with the name Colless attached to them.
Coincidentally, a claim has also been made that some inscribed clay objects from a tomb in ancient Tuba (Tell Umm el-Marra in Syria, east of Aleppo and north-west of Emar) have the oldest examples of alphabetic writing known to us. A stupendous claim, or perhaps a stupid idea, if the writing is syllabic.
"Tell Umm el-Marra (Syria) and Early Alphabetic in the Third
Millennium: Four Inscribed Clay Cylinders as a Potential Game Changer" (Christopher Rollston, George Washington University)
This article by Colin Barras has been published in New Scientist (24 April 2021) page 15
Glenn Schwartz, one of the archaeologists who found these objects, is Professor of Archaeology at Johns Hopkins Univerrsity; his colleague P. Kyle McCarter, now W. F. Albright Professor Emeritus, is listed as one of his consultants); he works in the field of West Semitic epigraphy and is reputedly an expert on the origin of the alphabet; McCarter should have been able to assist Schwartz in identifying this writing system, but he is a member of the American school of thought that only countenances an "early alphabetic" category, and (on pain of loss of tenure and reputation) they ignore the parallel line of "early syllabic", even though this is fundamental to the other. Their university was formerly the base of the great William Foxwell Albright, the polymath who practised Biblical Archaeology. Albright was an unashamed orientalist, and he is my guru for Ancient Near Eastern studies. Albright certainly recognized the significance of the inscriptions from Byblos ("the Canaanites had invented a syllabary of their own, clearly modeled to some extent after the Egyptian hieroglyphic system"); he thought that this would have happened before the end of the 3rd millennium BCE, in the time of "the Old Empire" (1961, 334); the writing on the Tuba cylinders could fit into this framework. Disappointingly, although Albright acknowledged that the proto-alphabet was "the direct progenitor" of the later Phoenician alphabet, he averred that "there is little reason to believe that it was directly influenced by the earlier syllabic script of Byblos" (1961, 339f) . Unfortunately, Albright's opinion on the syllabary, and his defective detective work on the early alphabetic inscriptions, culminating in his faulty table of signs and values, have severely corrupted "archaeological research", in its wider sense.
In his book on Archaeology and the Religion of Israel (1942, 1968, p. 36) Albright states that he is using the term "archaeology" in its inclusive sense, covering all written documents and unwritten materials; but occasionally he restricts it to its narrower meaning, which excludes "philological investigation". Glenn Schwartz, the archaeologist, certainly has a philological side encompassing languages and literatures, having studied Assyriology with Benjamin R. Foster, and he was expecting to find cuneiform texts on clay tablets in his excavations, but instead he got linear markings on little clay cylinders. Glenn has been mulling over the script for years, and has now plumped (in a heavy fall) for earliest alphabetic, even though I told him long ago (when the fragments were first publicised on the expedition's website) that it was the West Semitic syllabary (or Canaanite syllabary, or Byblos ), which I now call the West Semitic proto-syllabary, and I maintain that it was the predecessor and progenitor and companion of the early alphabet.
In his "Potential Game Changer" essay, Rollston supports Schwartz, and in so doing he has become another of the epigraphists who can not differentiate the proto-syllabary from the proto-alphabet, a benighted band who will never be knighted (well, they are nearly all US Americans). On the other hand we could admit that Rollston and Schwartz are approximately one-third right, since most of the letters of the Phoenician consonantal alphabet (no signs to represent vowels) and the subsequent Greco-Roman vocalic alphabet (with vowel-letters) were originally in the West-Semitic syllabary; they were borrowed from the proto-syllabary for the new consonantal writing system, and continued on into the European alphabets. So a mistake like this would seem to be excusable. However, an examination mark of 33% is a D-grade, and in the realm of failure. As you can see, I am trying to write this so that university students can understand, since my hopes are invested in them, that they will understand this elementary (LMN-T) theory, which has already been verified by experiments, but is incomprehensible to established academics, because (1) they did not think of it, so it must be wrong, and (2) it is not what their teacher taught them, and (3) it is propagated by three marginal scholars (Colless, Mendenhall, Hoch), who are dying or dead. For my part, alone and in the dying category, desperation could be creeping in; but inconstant continents were eventually but reluctantly allowed to drift, by hidebound scientists; and syllablic-consonantal paradigms can shift, too.
I would like to clarify this matter here and now, at the very outset. By rehearsing all the background details, I will strengthen my own case in my own mind, and hopefully teach the reader how to interpret early West Semitic writing. For those outside this subject area my presentation may be funny ha-ha (take note, there is our first syllabogram, and HA is represented by the groundplan of a temple when you are looking for it); for those professionally involved in this matter it may possibly be funny-peculiar and offensive to boot. Here beginneth the first lesson. George Mendenhall and myself compiled tables of sound-values for the syllabograms in the collection of inscriptions from Gubla/ Gebal/ Byblos, and I have been applying them to many other texts, such as these Tuba examples. Schwartz has stated that he does not find my views on his cylinders convincing (he graciously gave me a footnote in 2010: "this interpretation does not seem persuasive"); but his ideas are based on mystical meditation on the Indus script (by the way, the lotus position is known in that civilization), and external inspection of a few samples from Byblos for comparison, without internal investigation of the proto-syllabic system in all its manifestations around the ancient world. He has now dived in (deeply out of his depth) suggesting that the characters are early alphabetic letters; he thinks he can find versions of A, L, O, and K, but he can not identify any words.
A would not be the vowel a, but rather 'Alep/Alpha (glottal stop in Semitic) and represented by the head of an ox, still visible to us today if the A is inverted; he must be referring to the glyph in the middle of the second piece; in his 2010 drawing he omitted the clear vertical stroke, and included the faint horizontal line at the top, to produce a vaguely bovine head; no, it is not a short-horned bull, but WA (waw, a hook or nail) and that is certainly carried over from the proto-syllabary into the the proto-consonantary (the early alphabet) as W.
O would be `Ayin, an eye, which certainly appeared in the Phoenician alphabet as a circle, in the Iron Age, and went vocalic as O in the international alphabet; but the circle was the sun in the Bronze Age, standing for the syllable SHI and the consonant Sh (from shimsh "sun").
L must be at the right end of the top piece, but I take that to be `U, 'Ayin plus U; and/or the curved line at the left end of the bottom fragment, but that is NI, a tusk, which was surplus to requirements in the proto-alphabet, and the snake that was NA and became simple N is at the end of the lower piece; at the start of the top fragment is a bee (nubtu > NU) every scribe struggled with drawing this character, and there was no standard form; and when the consonantal alphabet was constructed, the snake (NA) told the bee (NU) to buzz off, and take the tusked elephant (NI) with her. Hey, it's a jungle out there, and a jungle book in here. This knowledge is for children, too, so I am reaching out to them, trusting them to pass it on to their elders.
K. Yes. ALL OK. That tripodic figure (actually three fingers of a hand, apparently) is KA, and by sleight of hand it slipped into the alphabet; we will meet it again in an early alphabetic inscription from Thebes; but the story of the letter K is complicated.
What have we overlooked? There is one more letter awaiting our attention at the end of fragment 1, and a portion of something at the broken end of fragment 2. The latter sign is difficult to discern
HI could easily go unnoticed (I overlooked it in my early research on these texts); we focus on the end of the top piece and see a reversed E (this syllabogram is indeed the ultimate origin of E, Epsilon not Eta); the middle stroke has a short extension that might well be complemented by the short stroke on the small piece, pictured below; in any case, the other end of this stem seems to have a circle, for a head, and the whole character represents a person in jubilation (hillul, as in Halleluyah).
The other mysterious marking may in fact be complete; thus a curved line with two crossbars can be GU (gupnu "vine"); a circle with one crossbar at the top of the stem would be Egyptian `Ankh, a symbol of life (the top vertebra of a bull) and produce H.I ( h.iwatu "life"); a circle with two crossbars on its stem is the nefer symbol of goodness and beauty, which combines with Semitic t.abu ("good") to render syllabic T.A and alphabetic T. (and finally Theta). We could break our bee (NU) into two pieces, and discover `Ankh. It so happens that these two logograms denoting "good" and "life" appear in another proto-syllabic inscription (mistakenly published as early alphabetic) on an amulet against sickness, from Egypt.
NA. We now need to scrutinize the two serpents at the end of each NIKAWANA sequence (see the photographs below). There is no doubt that the snake (NA) passed into the alphabet to act as the letter N (note that the head is on the right side in Roman N); in the proto-alphabet the snake for N could be a reposing cobra (Egyptian hieroglyph I10) or a prone viper (I9), but the syllabary preferred the erect cobra (I12); and that is what we are looking at here; examining the tail of each serpent, we see that it is not flat on the ground but has a curve or an angle (as in the hieroglyph); this feature occurs consistently in the Byblos syllabic texts. We need to grasp this rearing reptile by the tail and hold on to it till the very end; this is the key component in my argumentation. Of course, you can steer off course and look back at the Lakish sherd and see my sneaky snaky point, and expend no more energy on this journey.
Here I need to say that my readings are tentative, according to the Colless principle that the only person who knows the intended meaning of an inscription is the person who wrote it. Accordingly we can commiserate with Glenn Schwartz as he attempts to make sense of his great discoveries; but these texts are early syllabic not earliest alphabetic; he was arguing from the wrong premiss (like the two women in their respective apartments shouting at each other across their alley; a passing philosopher observed that they could never agree because they were arguing from different premises). I intend to prove to you that my premiss is the right one in this case.
Top left: nu-shi-`u, "saved"
Bottom left and top right: ni-ka-wa-na, "established"
Glenn Schwartz could not identify any words in these markings. You want woids? How about this pleasant plethora of verbose verbiage. Imagine the triumphant headline: "Oldest missing link for the Semitic root that gave us the name Jesus found on an ancient lucky charm for salvation and resurrection in a luxurious élite tomb in war-torn Syria is a potential game changer".
In this regard, Glenn thinks his artefacts could be amulets, and I would support this idea; and the two words I have detected (nu-shi-`u, "saved"and ni-ka-wa-na, "established") seem appropriate to dead people facing judgement before entering the next world. This could mean that the three occupants of the tomb were believers in the Egyptian view of the afterlife, and their miniscule documents were equivalent to the Book of the Dead that an Egyptian man or woman carried with them into the judgement hall. As I see it, the man, woman, and child were comfortably installed in their resting place, with plenty of pots providing sustenance for their sojourn, and a spear to protectt them; subsequently their tomb became a crime scene: they were victims of posthumous murder! The grave was a double square rectangle, with the north and south walls twice as long as the west and east sides. The male body was centered at the west wall, right next to a collection of unbroken pots in the northwest corner. The female bones were in the corner of the west and south walls, and her jewelry was still there, suggesting that robbery was not the foremost motive in the mind of the tomb-raider. The child's body was further down the south wall. This arrangement could imply that they were all headed westwards, to a paradise. There is a line of three smashed pots, running SE from the NW corner, and the four cylinder fragments were found in their vicinity. If these were talismans, threaded on a string, they could have been on the bodies, and the destroyer tore them away and shattered them, in the belief that these tickets to eternity were now invalid; but they could conceivably have been strung around the three jars, which contained the most important organ of each person, namely the heart; the placing of the heart in a vessel is in accordance with Egyptian funeral customs; it was not the brain that would be judged, but the heart, because it contained the memory, and the record of the person's actions and experiences in life would be recorded on the tablets of the heart (as the saying still goes, learn by heart).
Further discussion on the the identification of the characters is given elsewhere: my 2007 identification of the script on these cylindrical objects has now been updated here:
This judgement is reported in my article on "The origin of the alphabet" (in Antiguo Oriente, 12, 71-104, Colless 2014:78, n. 22), so it has been published.
Yes, the Umm el-Marra/Tuba texts can be confidently considered as the oldest-known West Semitic inscriptions written in a West Semitic script, but it is the proto-syllabary not the proto-consonantary. Christopher Rollston is quite wrong in asserting that these Tuba inscriptions are "Early Alphabetic".
To bolster his case for widespread employment of the alphabet, Rollston presents a list of "Early Alphabetic" inscriptions, which is actually an unsorted jumble of four different categories of syllabic and consonantal texts (it is reproduced and rearranged at the end of this essay). I think it is scandalous that the people who work professionally in this field can allow themselves to ignore the so-called Byblos pseudo-hieroglyphic syllabary (the West Semitic proto-syllabary).
Now, before we study the new Lakish inscription, let me lay down the foundations again. The first basic thing is that I do not believe anything. Why? because all human knowledge is tentative (merely a messy mass of attempts to make sense of all the phenomena around us), and provisional (with multiple provisos attached to it, open to alteration by new evidence and fresh insights). However, I give a large amount of credence to my theory of the origin of the alphabet; and I am encouraged by the number of people who are looking at my essay on the subject.
This is an opportunity for me to expound my ideas and discoveries relating to the evolution of the alphabet, comprehensively but concisely. These are the facts (tentative, but tenable, not tenuous): the West Semitic syllabary, alias the proto-syllabary, was the predecessor and progenitor and companion of the consonantal alphabet; and this non-syllabic pictorial alphabet engendered two more consonantaries and another syllabary; one outcrop of these, the Phoenician consonantary, provided the resources for the construction of the Greco-Roman alphabet.
Rollston kindly provides the chronological dates and data: the Tuba script (recognizable as the proto-syllabary) is Early Bronze Age (more precisely the 24th Century BCE, in the Old Kingdom period of Egypt): and the early alphabet (Sinai, and Egypt) is Middle Bronze Age (possibly 19th Century BCE, Egyptian Middle Kingdom period). This shows that the proto-syllabary preceded the proto-consonantary (the proto-alphabet); but it did not predecease it.
The proto-syllabary was not only the predecessor of the alphabet, but also its procreator; the number of genes or graphemes that they share proves their common lineage, and even the parentage of the forerunner. First notice that the proto-syllabary (according to my research calculations) has signs representing slightly less than two dozen (XXIV) consonants, apparently twenty-two (XXII), which is the same number as in the later consonantary (the Phoenician alphabet, from which the Greco-Roman alphabet was fashioned), whereas the proto-alphabet has slightly more than two dozen consonants (XXVII at least). Focusing on the Phoenician alphabet (which developed out of the proto-alphabet), we can see that most of its twenty-two consonantal graphemes (consonantograms) already functioned as syllabic signs (syllabograms) in the West Semitic proto-syllabary; furthermore, the gestation of the proto-consonantary (proto-alphabet, with twenty-seven consonants) involved creation of some new "members" on the body (namely D, H, T, G, Z.).
The two genetically related systems operated side by side; the syllabary did not die in giving birth to the consonantary. The mother and the daughter traveled together far afield, over lands and seas, in the 2nd Millennium BCE (Middle and Late Bronze Ages): they both left their traces in Egypt, Sinai, Canaan, and Scandinavia; and also in the ancient trans-Atlantic continent (Texas, for example) and islands (Jamaica), and notably Puerto Rico, where we find figurines with proto-syllabic and proto-alphabetic inscriptions, and a plaque exhibiting the letters of the proto-alphabet.
Left figurine: 9 syllabograms: consonants `Ayin, H, T (note crucifix-cross for TU)
Right figurine: The sun-sign Sh stands in the centre (2 serpents guarding the disc)
Three new related systems came into existence, not by evolution but through human intervention; I classify them with these technical terms:
(1) neo-consonantary, a shorter consonantal alphabet;
(2) cuneo-consonantary, a cuneiform alphabet, with characters made up of wedge-shaped components;
(3) neo-syllabary, a syllabary constructed from the letters of the neo-consonantary.
(1) First came the neo-consonantary: the pictorial characters became stylized, and the number of letters was reduced; the resulting short alphabet (neo-consonantary) can be distinguished from the long alphabet (proto-consonantary) by the presence of any of the five additional consonantograms listed above (especially >ooo H, and = D); at the same time, if we find in the text a word that originally had H (for example) but has H.et (h.wh. "hole" in Hebrew, but with h in Arabic) then we have an indication of the short alphabet. By the same token, if any of these three additional proto-alphabet signs (= D, >ooo H, --|) Z.) appear in a text it could not be proto-syllabic, because those consonants are not recorded in the syllabary; T (\/\/) is an exception, because it functions as SHA (from thad / shad, "breast") in the syllabary, and covers Shin (Sh/Th) in the neo-consonantary (the short alphabet); and. G (ghanab, "grape") is a vine-stand, and acts as a T- syllabogram. These are some of the complications of categorizing West Semitic inscriptions, when a new example comes to our attention
(2) The cuneiform alphabet (cuneo-consonantary) was invented in the Late Bronze Age, modeled on the characters of the proto-alphabet, and it likewise had long and short versions. We have much more evidence of this West Semitic system (most of it from Ugarit), because its clay tablets were less perishable than parchment and papyrus.
'A B G Kh D H W Z H. T. Y K Sh L
M Dh N Z. S ` P S. Q R Th
Gh T 'i 'u `S
(3) Another innovation was the neo-syllabary: the alphabetic letters were used as syllabograms, with three syllables (-a, -i, -u) for each consonant, as in the proto-syllabary; generally speaking, the various syllables for each consonant were marked by a change in stance or shape for the usual character. This time the roles have been reversed: a consonantary engenders a syllabary.
Pictured is the amazing ostracon from Izbet Sartah, ancient Ebenezer (1 Samuel 4:1); the scribe is demonstrating how the new syllabary works; the alphabet at the bottom is apparently intended to exhibit the syllables with the vowel -a ('a, ba, ga, da etc.); the text shows the letters in different stances ('Alep in line 1, Taw [+ x] in line 2 and elsewhere); he uses signs as logograms: example, the 'Ayin early in line 2, a dotted circle, represents the word `ayin, "eye". See the presentation at the collesseum/abgaday site.
Again, the new syllabary and the new consonantary operated together. This is strikingly demonstrated in the two inscriptions from Shaaraim (Khirbet Qeiyafa, Sha`arayim, the dual-gated fortress overlooking the Elah Valley, where David confronted Goliath): the ostracon is syllabic (it is an oracle from Yahu concerning David's defeat of the `anaq Guliyut; we finally have inscriptional evidence for David from his own lifetime, as "the servant of Elohim", though this is before he became King David); the legend on the jar is consonantal (it includes the name Eshbaal, a son of King Saul).
Examples of all five of these varieties could be lurking in the ruins of Lakish (Tell Lachish), and we will test this idea when we come to examine the new sherd from that city.
Above left is an important proto-alphabetic inscription, which has much to teach us (it would be upside down if I had included it in this photograph, though actually it was the only one of the six that was right way up in Petrie's published photograph, as his frontispiece, as all the others were unknowingly inverted!):
Notice the D sign (=) at the end of the line (running from left to right), which indicates that this is a long proto-alphabetic inscription; its counterpart Z (which will eventually swallow it up, in the short alphabet) is the second sign (double triangle with the three strokes of Greco-Roman Z hiding in them); the mouth is above it as P, ever denied in favour of an angle-sign, which is really a boomerang, representing G; the obvious Q (--o-) is in evidence, but goes unrecognized in other accounts of the early alphabet, because the bag-sign for Sadey is wrongly identified as Q. All this may be news to you, but I wish to reassure you that this is not false information, and it displays the chaos that prevails in "Early Alphabetic" research. Another major error on the standard alphabetic charts is the equating of the fish-sign as D (from dag "fish") whereas it is S (samk "fish"); the door-signs (for D, which still shows it is a picture of a door) are wrongly identified as the letter H.et, and the true H.et is classified as a variant of B. The falling domino effect goes even further than this, and that is why the upholders of this broken cistern-system can not flush out its impurities and read the inscriptions. This text actually speaks of refining metal: LZQQT.KPD; the doubling of the Q is achieved by the two dots above it; there are other examples of doubling dots in the proto-alphabetic literature, but you will not read about this in the academic manuals on the subject; the Q would be puzzling to the establishmentarians, as it is a discovery I have made, and they have ignored or summarily dismissed it, even though the South Arabian alphabet (clearly a descendant of the proto-alphabet, but we will set it aside for the most part in this discussion) has this same form for its Q, and our Q/q still shows its origin: it was a cord wound on a stick, qaw, "line", with its own Egyptian hieroglyph to confirm that ancient and modern builders alike use this instrument (though in my lifetime the string is wound on a flat pencil); as already intimated, the standard (wrong) sign for Q on charts of the early alphabet is a tied bag (unrecognized as such) for the letter S.adey (S., emphatic S). The next letter in the text is T., the Egyptian nefer symbol, signifying "good and beautiful", and combined with Semitic t.abu (good) in the proto-syllabary (see the following inscription from the same bunch) and proto-alphabet; it became Theta, eventually; here it might be a logogram; the expected crossbar (o-|-) is not clearly evident; so it could be W. The K is patently obvious, and we can see how it will develop into the form K. The word PD means "fine gold". My literal interpretation would be: "To (l) refine (zqq) good (t.ab) as (k) gold (pd)"
I weep with Cassandra. "When will they ever learn?" Complicated writing systems with hundreds of characters (such as Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphic) have been successfully deciphered; but the simple little proto-alphabet is ravaged by all who lay hands on her. Such a state of affairs is disconcerting and disgraceful, and all my efforts to remedy it have failed, it would seem. My credentials are derived from eighty years of wrestling with the writing systems of humankind, starting with the most intractable of them all: English alphabetic spelling.
Let us put my derailed train of thought back on its track. (Notice the railway lines that the scribe of this inscription has laid for his train of syllable wagons to run along.)
In this fabulous collection of a half-dozen gems, the odd one out is the
proto-syllabic inscription at the bottom of the composite picture
(originally published at the top, and unwittingly inverted, but reproduced here clearly and correctly). The small one beside it (see the
earlier photograph above) is apparently consonantal; at its centre, at the end of a line of writing,
it has a door sign ([| approximately, a rectangle with a doorpost, the
same as the letter Dalet on the Lakish sherd) which would say D /d/; this
syllabic inscription (running from left to right) also has a door-sign,
with two panels, and as a syllabogram it would say DA (from dalt "door", Greek Delta). Its companion tablet has, at the start of its "D for door" line a D (=), which should indicate that it is neither proto-syllabic nor neo-consonantal.
An apposite aside: with regard to his tiny artefacts, Glenn Schwartz observes that “given the small number of sign values attested, it is difficult to ascertain whether the system was logographic, syllabic, alphabetic, or a combination of these” (Schwartz 2021, 258). The same cautionary remark could apply to our new Lakish sherd. However, the important point is the possibility of "a combination" of functions for an ancient writing system. The art of writing began with logograms (or we might say pictologograms for the earliest examples): the character expressed the word (in any language) that the sign depicted; then the sounds of the word could be used as syllabograms (single or multiple syllables) to represent the sounds of other words. When the acrophonic principle was put into service, in the new and original West Semitic syllabary and consonantary, the sign would represent the first syllable of the pictured word, or the first consonant. It is not generally accepted, but my contention is that the proto-syllabary and the proto-consonantary retained the older functions alongside their acrophonic roles; for example, a snake-sign can say NA in the proto-syllabary, or N in the proto-alphabet, but in either system it can represent the full word NAKhASh ("snake"), and even stand for a word with the same sounds, in this case "copper".
Gazing again at our syllabic inscription from Thebes, I propose that the door-sign is here acting as a logogram and so it says DALTU ('door") followed by the sign for HU (hudmu "footstool"), hence "his/its door". The next grapheme is possibly WI (apparently a copper ingot, connected not with the NKhSh word mentioned above, but with East Semitic weru "copper"); this might be a logogram, and the sentence is stating that "its door is copper", and it may be referring to a temple or tomb in the Valley of the Kings; presumably the six inscriptions were produced by West Semitic workers in the Late Bronze Age. The next syllabogram depicts a rainstorm (Hebrew h.aziz), hence H.A. Thereafter, a very important character, a symbol of the sun with two serpents, standing for ShIMSh "sun", and the syllable ShI; this is also a feature of the proto-consonantary, as Sh, though the sun-disc is usually omitted there; the disc can stand alone, or with one serpent, or with two (as here). A problematic triangular glyph follows: I suggest DU, from DUDU "jar". The sequence H.AShIDU does not lend itself to an easy resolution; given that the preceding ingot stands for copper, H.AShI mighr be a phonetic complement to make it clear that the word for copper (see above the illustration) is to be supplied, while DU is a relative pronoun (also DU and ZU in Semitic languages), resulting in "Its door is of copper that is orange-coloured (TRG, the next sequence of signs). However, if we compare H.AShIDU with Hebrew H.ASID, "pious", and think of its connotations of "faithful" and "loyal", then we might think of "genuine copper"; but the idea of "solidarity" in Hebrew H.ESED, and the Arabic verb H.AShADA, "gather together, mass, concentrate" might support "solid copper". Then we see (or hear?) a pair of musical semiquavers, but this is the grapevine Taw (TA or TU?) that we saw on a Puerto Rico figurine earlier. The next glyph is a bird, a vulture, RU, which we will meet again at Lakish. Then a throwstick, with an acute angle, GA (there is one of these on the new Lakish sherd).
We now have the root trg, which refers to citrus, and the colour orange. Josephus (Jewish War 5.5.3) likewise describes the gates of the Jerusalem Temple, plated with gold and silver, and one of Corinthian khalkos (copper, brass). One possible interpretation would thus be: "Its door is sold/genuine orange copper".
Moving on to the remaining two letters, whose sequence is unsure, but the rectangular sign is an altar, MIZBAH.U, for the syllable MI; the circular character is apparently the Egyptian nfr glyph (o-||-), used for Semitic T.ABU (good), and the syllabogram T.A, and the consonoantogram T.; as ever, only the writer knew what it all meant; it might say "a fine altar" or "the altar is fine" (though the adjective should have a final t to mark the feminine gender); if t.ami is equivalent to Hebrew t.ame', then the copper door is "unclean"; or we retain "good" for the copper or the door, and MI is "from" (as with Corinth in the Josephus text) and assume that the name of the place has been washed away, and it could have said Alashiya (Cyprus) or Tarshish (Tartessos in Spain).
Well now, that was a test for the Mendenhall-Colless decipherment of the West Semitic syllabic script, with my additional technique of looking for logograms.
Examples of the various types of scripts, from Tell Lachish
Our new Lakish inscription
may not have enough graphemes for us to ckassify it, but here are some samples of the caegories, which may assist us in our quest. Details of theur interpreatation will be added gradually.
(1) The proto-syllabary
A proto-syllabic inscription from Lakish
the square sherd
The Lakish Dagger
As I see it, the upper line runs from left to right (dextrograde), has a B (house with open entrance) and two instances of H.et (divided rectangle, but without baseline); in second place is what appears to be an incomplete dotted circle, to be compared with the undotted example on the new Lakish sherd; this could be an `Ayin, but a combination H.`H. is not really possible in a Semitic language. However, if it were the remains of a Rosh (a human head with an eye, which has analogies in other inscriptions), a sequence H.RH.B would correspond nicely to HRHB, known at the Sinai turquoise mines as the patron-deity of a vegetable garden (Sinai 355 at Mine L), and at Ugarit as "king of summer (fruit)"; he may have been the male personifcation of the sun, since West Semitic shimsh and Ugaritic shapsh are grammatically feminine. This hint of solarity for this god is strengthened by my reading of the lower line, from (right to left (sinistrograde): BYS.'H W ShBH, "at his going forth and his returning"; this may have been a ritual object for the rising and setting of the sun. Questions could be asked about the S.adey (for original Z.?) and the Shin (Hebrew ShWB "return", Arabic ThWB), but this text seems verified as showing the short alphabet, that is, the neo-consonantal script.
The third proto-syllabic inscription from Lakish
the oblong sherd
The question we must ask about this new inscription is this: Is its script the proto-syllabary, or the proto-consonantary, or the neo-consonantary, or the neo-syllabary? It is obviously not the cuneo-consonantary, the cuneiform alphabet, since there are no wedge-shaped (cuneiform) components in its characters.
I am still pondering, and I will publish my detailed deliberations here, intermittently. Nobody thinks this way when confronting a new inscription, applying this four-pronged research instrument (well, I know one person in Israel. whose name is Geula, and she has inspired me to see the proto-syllabary in this particular case); but this is the right way to go.
Ask the question! Is this inscription syllabic (proto-syllabary or neo-syllabary) or consonantal (proto-consonantary or neo-consonantary)? In this instance, my preferred response is to say: It is always difficult to decide, because the proto-syllabary and the proto-consonantary share so many signs (since most of the consonantograms are converted syllabograms); but the neo-syllabary can probably be excluded, as it was a phenomenon of the early Iron Age, and this (allegedly) securely dated missing link is from the Late Bronze Age; also the readily recognizable D (a rectangular door) is not one that matches the three rounded D-syllabograms.
CLASSIFICATION OF PUBLISHED INSCRIPTIONS
Christopher Rollston has compiled this list of early West Semitic inscriptions from the Levant; he regards them all as "Early Alphabetic", but it is an artificially homogenized mass of proto-syllabic, proto-consonantal, neo-consonantal, and neo-syllabic. I will reproduce his miscellany here, and then attempt to untangle this entanglement, thereby exposing an unfortunate weakness in the manual that contains it:
Rollston 2020. “The Emergence of Alphabetic Scripts.” Pp. 65-78 in Wiley Blackwell Companion to Ancient Near Eastern Languages, ed. Rebecca Hasselbach-Andee. Wiley Blackwell.
Note that he creditably and commendably recognizes the acrophonic principle in the making of the proto-alphabet (and its progenitor the proto-syllabary, I would add), although many wrongly discredit it; and he also highlights the pictorial aspect of the signs ( his term pictographic might be replaced by my pictophonic, or even pictophonographic).
" It is also important to emphasize the usage of Early Alphabetic in the broader Levant during the second millennium BCE. At this juncture, therefore, I will summarize this point by reiterating the data which I have discussed in various previous publications (e.g., Rollston 2020, 73). Namely, Ugaritic (13th century BCE, and wedge-shaped in nature) is not the only attested alphabetic writing system in the Levant during the second millennium BCE. Indeed, various Early Alphabetic inscriptions (which are pictographic in nature,….and are reflective of the acrophonic principle) have been discovered at a number of sites in the Levant, ranging from around the 17th century BCE through the 10th century BCE. Note in this connection the following [alphabetical order, not chronological]:
Beth Shemesh Ostracon (Driver 1954, 100-101, and plate 40; Naveh 1987, 35 with drawing),
Beth Shemesh Incised Potsherd (McCarter, Bunimovitz, and Lederman 2011),
Gezer Sherd (Taylor 1930 and plate 1),
Gezer Jar Signs (Seger 1983 and plates 1-4),
Izbet Sarteh (Naveh 1978),
Ophel (Jerusalem) Incised Sherd (Mazar, Ben-Shlomo, and Aḥituv 2013; Hamilton 2015, with literature),
Lachish Ewer (Cross 1954 and literature),
Lachish Dagger (Starkey 1937),
Lachish Bowl Inscripton (Ussishkin 1983, 155-157, and plate 40),
Megiddo Gold Ring (Guy 1938),
Qubur Walaydah Bowl (Cross 1980),
Qeiyafa Ostracon (Misgav, Garfinkel, and Ganor 2009; Rollston 2011),
Qeiyafa Ba’al Jar Inscription (Garfinkel, Golub, Misgav, and Ganor 2015),
Raddana Handle (Cross and Freedman 1971),
Shechem Plaque (Böhl 1938).
Added to the discussion is now a new inscription from Tel Lachish (Höflmayer, Misgav, Webster, Streit 2021)."