Thursday, July 26, 2007



The photograph and my accompanying sketch show an inscription (Sinai 376) engraved on a rock wall in the Sinai Peninsula, in the region where the ancient Egyptians had turquoise mines and copper mines.

In my interpretation of the West Semitic (Canaanite) inscription (Sinai 345) on a sphinx statuette from a temple in that area, we met a metalworker named Asa, who said:

"This is my offering to Ba`alat; 'Asa Smith ("son of the furnace"), beloved of Ba`alat".

Asa had described himself as a BN KR, "son of the furnace", meaning a smith, and also as a devotee of the goddess Ba`alat ("the Lady"), equivalent to the Egyptian goddess Hathor ("the turquoise Lady").

The text we now have before us gives a possible reason for his gift to the goddess. Notice that the two largest characters in this text are an ox-head ('Aleph) and a fish (S), the very letters that constitute the name 'Asa. Indeed, there is another 'Aleph below the S, and that is how the name is spelled in Hebrew ('Asa').

We are presented with four vertical columns of writing, not horizontal lines. I have tried various ways of following the direction of the writing, and I feel that the scribe's intention was to write in boustrophedon style: that is, in the way that an ox ploughs a field. I think this can be seen in the first two lines (on the left). The bottom sign on the second column is very close to the last letter on the first column, showing that the inscription is turning a corner. So column 1 runs downwards and column 2 upwards, and so on.

Starting from the top left, my reading is (letters in brackets are not on my drawing):
(1) Q L ` Kh (2) R Ss D W T (3) ' S ' (4) B (N K) R K T (B)

The Q is a string wound on a stick (qaw); it can have two projecting strokes at the top (the ends of the stick and the cord), or one (as here). The L is a shepherd's crook, and the `Ayin is an eye. These three characters had their counterpart on the sphinx (Sinai 345) and on the Theban ostrakon (Thebes 1) exhibiting the letters of the protoalphabet (a drawing of this significant document is provided below).

The last letter in this column is an emphatic H, conventionally transcribed as underlined H, but here as Kh. It represents a hank of thread, or a wick of flax (according to its model, Egyptian hieroglyph V28). It is found in a different stance on the Theban protoalphabet (bottom right). There are three H sounds in Semitic. The basic H, in the throat, is represented by a person celebrating (hll) [>-E], the source of Grec0-Roman E; it is visible darkly above the Kh on the Theban protoalphabet. The Hh that is expressed by the breath between Kh and H is a controversial thing: in its Greco-Roman form it is H, and this is known to derive from a Phoenician character in the shape of a bisected rectangle, that is, two connected squares; it can be confused with D, when the door has two panels and short strokes for the doorpost (the D in the 2nd column does not have panels). My suggestion for its origin is that it depicts a house with a courtyard (HhaSsiR); one end-wall can be rounded, and this may be the case on the Theban ostracon (top left corner). Others view it as a fence.

The bottom letter of the second column is apparently a human head, R; there is another example in column 4.

We are now confronted by a very controversial character. It could be B (a house), though it is not very square and looks more like an oval object, and I would identify it as a tied bag (s.rr), representing an emphatic S sound, S with a dot under it, or S., or Ss (as I will transcribe this letter here); in Hebrew it is known as S.adĂȘ ("cricket"). However, a common view is that this sign represents Q. The reasons are: (1) the Hebrew name for the letter Q is Qoph, meaning "monkey", and the figure 8 form of this character can be taken as resembling a monkey (with no limbs or tail, of course); (2) in the Sinai inscriptions the sequence NSsBN (according to my transcription, and meaning "overseers" in my interpretation) supposedly makes better sense as NQBN, understood as meaning "miners" from the root NQB, "pierce" or "bore"(note that the Hebrew inscription recording the digging of the tunnel for the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem has a word NQBH, "piercing", referring to the work). Nevertheless, the form that Q/q has in its history from the Phoenician to the Greco-Roman alphabet, and particularly in the South Arabian alpabet (-o-), suggests that its true origin lies in the cord wound on a stick. However, the later versions of Ss have the bag either collapsed (-<) or burst (one side of the oval bag has disappeared); but the tie at the top remains. Then comes a door-sign, Dalt, D (it even looks like a Roman D, but the door post protrudes at the top and bottom). The fact that the door is adjacent to the fish here (in column 3) obviates the possibility that the fish could stand for D (even if dag is a West Semitic word for "fish").

The next letter lacks clarity, but it seems to be W, a circle on a stem, with no projections at the top; that is how Q [-o< -o-] and W [-o] were distinguished in the beginning; but eventually Q took the form of W [-o], and the circle of W opened up at the top [-( ]. The sign represents a hook (waw); the word is used in the Bible for the hooks on which the curtain was suspended, in the Tabernacle-tent of God. The name of the letter is still Waw. On the Theban protoalphabet, I would find W in the column on the far left, beneath R; it has a small stem, which comes from beside the circle [ _o rather than -o].

The letter at the top of the second column is a cross, and therefore T. There is another Taw in the 4th line.

The T of column 2 and the 'Aleph of Column 3 are far apart, and this does not fit my idea that we should be able to observe the writing turning a corner. However, it strikes me that above and between these letters is an example of Sh. We need to remember that on the sphinx (Sinai 345) and here (Sinai 376) the letters have been whitened so that they stand out in photographs, but some may have been overlooked. The Sh could be a relative pronoun, connecting 'Asa' with the preceding word.

This may well be a figment created by my mind, but it makes an opportunity to discuss the signs for the "sibilant" consonants S, Ss, Sh, and Th.

A photograph and drawing of the Thebes protoalphabet are included at this point.

They are available to be printed out at:

The tentative results of my search through all the available inscriptions are as follows:

S (Samek) is a fish, as shown here in the name 'Asa', and in the protoalphabet on Thebes 1 (third sign from top left). There is an alternative S (not present on the Theban ostrakon), a spine, based on Egyptian hieroglyph R11. This was the S that survived in the Phoenician alphabet, and in the Greek alphabet (as x), but not in the Roman alphabet. Both forms appear in the West semitic cuneiform alphabet, which is based on the protoalphabet: as normal S (fish) and special S (spine).

Ss (or S., SadĂȘ) is a tied bag, to the left of the fish on the Theban protoalphabet; notice the tie at the top (as on Egyptian hieroglyph V33) which is not so clear here, in line 2 below the door-sign.

Sh (or $, Hebrew name Shin, "tooth") is recognizable as a sun-sign, taking its sound from the word for "sun", $am$ or $im$. My argument first points out that in the West Semitic cuneiform alphabet the sign for Sh is a circle (representing the sun-disk, as also in the West Semitic syllabary, which was invented a few hundred years before the protoalphabet) or, alternatively, a sign like this [<|/] . I see this as an attempt to depict with "wedges" an Egyptian hieroglyph standing for the sun-god Ra (N6), which has the sun-disk protected by a serpent [roughly _o/]. In the protoalphabetic inscriptions, what I regard as the corresponding sign looks roughly like [<__>] (but with all the lines rounded), or [3] (mostly horizontal). What might have happened is that the sun-disc has been removed to simplify the character. Another possibility is that the curls at each end are the sun and the snake's head. I know of two examples where the disk is still present (one from the Thebes collection gathered by Flinders Petrie, and published in 1912, along with the ostrakon displaying the protoalphabet). And another version has now turned up in Egypt (see below).

Th (the sound in "thing") is usually transcribed as underlined T, or with the Greek letter Theta). My view is that its sign is a pair of human breasts (West Semitic thad), roughly \/\/.

Sh and Th can be seen on the Theban protoalphabet: the Sh is small and faint, below the Hh in the botom right area; the Th is further to the left, next to the Q.

The two signs can also be differentiated on the two new inscriptions (or one inscription in two parts) from Wadi el-Hol in Egypt, in the desert near Thebes. These are considered to be the oldest protoalphabetic evidence available at present (I am ever hopeful that more will be found). They are thought to be the work of West Semitic soldiers guarding the road from Thebes. These letters, we can safely say, are at an earlier stage of development than those on the Thebes ostrakon.

The breast-sign (for Thad, "breast") is large, and consists of four lines; on this horizontal inscription it is situated between the boomerang (G) and the small H. It is not a letter M, of which there are two examples in the text, and they have more than two angles.

In this vertical inscription we find a strange sign beween M and T at the top, and after G (boomerang) at the bottom. Given that the sign for Sh is the sun-disc with a serpent, we can identify these two letters immediately as Sh. When these inscriptions were first announced in November 1999, I commented on the internet that the first word was MShT (equivalent to Hebrew mishteh) meaning "drinking party" or "banquet", and that this celebration would be for the goddess pictured beside the writing. In passing, note that the goddess is named as `Anat (eye, snake, cross). The snake has a large head, but notice that the sun-serpent on the Sh also has a head, and the inscriber would have a cobra in mind, with its wide neck. `Anat would be equivalent to Ba`alat, the Lady, in the Sinai protoalphabetic inscriptions. On this same inscription, the god El ('Aleph L) appears preceded by a verb YGSh (the Y is not blacked in bold in the drawing), which would mean "he will provide". If we go to the other inscription we see that the first four letters are RBWN, which could say "much (rb) wine (wn)". Egyptian inscriptions in the vicinity speak of having a holiday for the goddess Hathor.

I will give a full exposition of these fascinating inscriptions in due course. For the moment they have served admirably to distinguish Sh and Th.

Returning to Sinai 376, we have line 3 running downwards with only 3 letters: ' S ', 'Asa'. On the sphinx statuette I suggested that he was given the title or surname BN KR ("son of the furnace"), that is, "Smith". I propose to find that same sequence here in line 4. Please find a square to the right of the bottom ox-head (B, house), then a snake (N), and above it a white hand with fingers pointing upwards (K), to the right of the large head (R), hence BNKR. Above the head is another hand (K), then a cross (T), and above the cross and to the left another square (B), hence KTB.

My interpretation breaks the long sequence into these words:
QL`: "has carved" (known in Hebrew, 1 Kings 6:29)
KhRSs: a metal tool (pickax? 2 Samuel 12:31)
DWT: "illness" (Leviticus 12:2, of menstrual indisposition)
'S': Asa ("Myrtle"; 1 Kings 15:8)
BN KR: "Smith" ("son of the furnace")
KTB: "has written" or "written" or "the one writing"

"The tool has inscribed the sickness of Asa Smith in writing"

Thus, the illness of Asa was the reason for his offering of the sphinx to Ba`alat.

In this instalment of the `Asa saga, we encountered these letters of the protoalphabet:
' B D Kh W K L N S ` Ss Q R T [Sh Th]
Previously we had studied these 14 letters:
' B Dh H Y K L M N S ` Q R T
The new letters can be added to the list:
' B D Dh H W Y K L M N S ` Ss Q R T [Sh Th]

'Alp (ox) Bayt (house) Dalt (door) Dhayp (eyebrow) Hillul (celebration) Waw (hook) Yad (forearm) Kap (hand, palm) Lamd (crook) Mu (water) Nahhash (snake) Samk (fish; and spine) `ayin (eye) Ssirar (tied bag) Qaw (line, cord on stick) Ra'sh (head) Taw (signature mark) [Shimsh (sun) Thad (breast)].

More details on this document (Sinai 376) can be found in my published article: Brian E. Colless, The proto-alphabetic inscriptions of Sinai, Abr-Nahrain 28 (1990) 1-52, particularly 12-13.

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