Sunday, November 08, 2015


Ben Haring, on an Ostracon of the early New Kingdom?
Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 74, 2 (2015) 189-196.

(July 2018) Another study of the document is now available to me: 
Thomas Schneider, A Double Abecedary? and 'Abgad on the TT999 Ostracon.  
Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 379 (2018) 103-112.
Also published, and cited by Schneider:
H.-W. Fischer-Elfert, and M. Krebernik,  Zu den Buchstabennamen auf dem aus TT 99 (Grab des Sennefri). Zeitschrift für ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 143 (2016) 169-176.
The document that Ben Haring and the other scholars are examining is Ostracon no. 99.95.0297 from Theban Tomb TT99, the burial place of an Egyptian named Senneferi; and it is being hailed as “the earliest known abecedary” (Universiteit Leiden News & Events). The use of the term ‘ostracon’ is far removed from the original meaning (a potsherd with names of people to be ostracized). The news report from Leiden University called it a”shard of pottery”, but it is actually a small piece of limestone with an ink inscription on each side; thus it is a tablet with Egyptian writing on it. Note carefully that Haring has a question mark in the title, and he is asking whether the items in this  text are arranged in an alphabetical order, following the sequence that starts with HLH.M, as opposed to the familiar ’Aleph Beth Gimel Daleth scheme (originally ’BGHD). (Schneider is suggesting that both systems are in evidence.)
   Anticipating the answer to Haring’s question: what we find is a list of words (nouns rather than names, apparently) with the first four having the initials HRH.M; this looks like a failed hypothesis already, but in Egyptian writing there is no L-sign or l-sound available, so r is used for l (though we will need to keep in mind that  l could also be transcribed by n, nr, and 3 [’aleph]).
   The HLH.M sequence-order for the letters is not known before Hellenistic times in Egypt (4th Century BCE onwards) but it is attested in Syria-Palestine in the Bronze Age (before 1200 BCE) and in Arabia in the Iron Age.[1]
   Is this an onomasticon (a list of names or words) or an abecedary (an inventory of alphabet letters arranged in a standard order)?  If it is an onomasticon, why is it being hailed as the earliest known abecedary? Nevertheless, it could be both, because each word has a symbol after it, and some of them look like letters (‘pictophonograms’) of the original alphabet. But the total number of such symbols on this fragmentary document is ten, a long way from the expected double dozen or more; but Haring (195a) surmises that the ostracon was originally twice as long as the surviving fragment.
   It must be said at this point that Haring and Schneider do not mention the oldest complete copies of the early alphabet in its pictorial stage (two inventories on three limestone tablets) which also come from Thebes, and should be cited in any study of the infant alphabet; but, astonishingly and deplorably, they are never consulted, even though they provide the solution to all the speculation that goes on in the search for the original letters of the alphabet (by Gordon Hamilton, for example)[2].  However, they have been examined by myself, publicly though not ‘publicationally’, in connection with the theories of Colless and Hamilton.[3]

    We now begin an examination of this promising artefact. Since Haring (192) gives strong indications that “Group Writing” (Egyptian “syllabic orthography”, a system for transcribing foreign words and names) is present here, we might expect the texts to be Semitic; but he has little success in taking this approach. However, I will affirm at the outset that the words are West Semitic, and that the original pictophonograms that I have proposed for the letters HLH.M are all there on side A of the tablet.
   Haring identifies the sides as obverse (A) and reverse (B), and he notes that the top of A corresponds to the bottom of B; and so the writer must have flipped the object over to continue  the inscription, rather than simply turning it around, so that the top lines of each text are at the top of each side. The text on A is broken off at the bottom, and B has some details missing at the top. The question remains whether the tablet was originally much larger, containing the entire alphabet, and thus with twice the number of letters (22 or more).

(Click once on the photograph to see it enlarged.)
[A1]  H
The sign on the left is a hieratic form of Hieroglyph A28, which is believed to be the basis for proto-alphabetic H /h/ and the origin of Greco-Roman E.  It represents a man rejoicing, and my long-standing hypothesis (1988: 35-36) connects it acrophonically with West Semitic hll (rejoice, exult, jubilate, celebrate, as in hallelu-yah). The various shapes it has in the inscriptions also relate it to A32 (man dancing) and even A29 (man standing on his hands).[4]
Haring's transcription of the accompanying text (on the right, and reading from right to left) is h3whn; he supposes this is for Egyptian hy hnw ‘rejoice’, and he sees it as a perfect match with the rejoicing figure. Certainly, but perhaps we can find a Semitic word for this slot. In this regard, Egyptian N (the water-wave sign that gives alphabetic M, pictured further down on this tablet, though reduced to a horizontal straight line in the hieratic script, as shown here immediately to the right of the rejoicer) was also employed to transcribe Semitic l, and so the the two Egyptian letters at the end (HN) could represent hl.[5] Furthermore, the eagle-vulture representing 3 (’aleph) could stand for l (though it would normally be indicating a vowel, here ha or hi.  Haring mentions the possibility of another N (and thus an additional l), and I can almost find *hillul, which I see as the word that gave HI in the West Semitic syllabary and H in the proto-alphabet (Colless 1992: 67). Still, the final hl might suffice to make the confirmatory connection that I have been waiting for, since 1988. Haring follows the standard line that the name of the letter is Hoy (or Hey, presumed to be what the man is shouting) and Hoy happens to be the Ethiopic name of the equivalent letter. Another Ethiopic letter name will be invoked in the next section. Notice in passing that the H-sign (hieroglyph O4, a field house) was one of the models for the letter B (bayt ‘house’; Hamilton 2006: 38-52); indeed, it was the one that survived into the Phoenician alphabet.

   Schneider thinks that a connection with Hebrew hll "praise", as proposed by F-E and K (2016:170), is unlikely, in the unattested form hlhl that appears here (apparently); instead he suggests a root hny "be pleasant"; I would still cling to the hll "exult" connection, as the original reference for the character depicted  to represent H, whatever the scribe has written here; but he has certainly written a term beginning with h (hieroglyph O4).
   However, I think the symbol of the man rejoicing is intended to give us the sound of the first consonant in the series, perhaps by means of the Egyptian hy hnw "jubilate" (Gardiner, 493, with reference to A32 man dancing), though A8, with the man sitting, is even better, as it represents hnw "jubilation".
 [A2]  L
Haring transcribes the text as rw (rawi) and looks for a word to go with the “curl or rope at the end”. Actually, it is an established idea that the original letter L was a ‘coil of rope’, corresponding to hieroglyph V1 (Hamilton 2006: 126-127). Also, Egyptian r was used to render Semitic l (more usually than n for l, as proposed in A1 above); remember that there was no ­l-sound in Egyptian.  If we are looking for a word lawi, we can find it in the Ethiopic name for L, Lawi. Romain Butin (Harvard Theological Review 1932: 146, and Colless, Abr-Nahrain 1988: 44) noted this, and pointed to a root lawa ‘wind, coil’ (as in Arabic); Hamilton records this in a footnote (2006: 136, n. 157) but he rejects the other possibility of a shepherd’s crook (S38, S39) as the prototype (2006: n. 148). However, on the two alphabets from Thebes, neither  L has a coil: one has a crook (like S38) and the other has an inverted example of S39 (looking just like our l). It could be that they are allographs: either the coil and the crook are both original, or else one developed from the other. Note that the other three scholars (Sch, F-E, K) also invoke the root lwy here.
[A3]  H.
Here the text is transcribed as h.rpt. (Note that when I place a dot after a letter it should be understood as actually being beneath the letter, in accordance with the standard transcription system for h., s., z., t. .) The H. sign is M16 (clump of papyrus) used in Group Writing instead of the normal V28 (hank or wick), which became H in the proto-alphabet. Haring offers a proper name h.rpt in Ugaritic cuneiform sources, but he wonders how this and his other suggestions would relate to the sign on the left. He identifies it as “M22” (“a reed plant”) but the sign has two shoots on each side, whereas M22 has single shoots, and so this is M23 or M26 (sedge).  If we search for Semitic h.lpt we discover h.lp, as a species of rush with sharp edges (root h.lp ‘be sharp, cut’) (Marcus Jastrow, Dictionary of Talmud etc, 456f) and ‘shoot’ (plural –ym or –wt) (Jastrow, 472a); it is cognate with Arabic h.alaf or h.alfa’, and it is especially found in Egypt; it is glossed as ‘Schilf oder Riedgras’ (Jacob Levy, Wörterbuch über die Talmudim und Midraschim, II, 63a). ‘Schilf’ is ‘sedge’ (Germanic sagjaz; sag-

  ‘saw’). (QED) Schneider and Fischer-Elfert & Krebernik also read h.lpt "rush, reed", and and connect it with Semitic h.lp (also Akkadian elpetu).
   Now, the sedge sign that comes at the end of the h.lpt sequence  is not in any proto-alphabetic text that I have seen, though M22 with single shoots does occur in the syllabary, apparently as mu, from mulku, ‘kingship’, after M23 nsyt, ‘kingship’ (Colless, Abr-Nahrain 1992: 82-83). It might have served as an allograph for H. in the proto-alphabet, but my choice has always been the mansion sign for H., acrophonically based on h.z.r (Hebrew ‘court, mansion’ (Colless 1988:38-41).  Its form in the alphabet in the Iron Age is an upright rectangle, divided into two squares; in the Bronze Age, the earliest form has the mansion with two rooms and a courtyard, but because it is a house it is usually, but mistakenly, placed in the B (bayt, house) category (Hamilton 2006: 48). The courtyard can be rounded, and it so happens that this very character occurs here: to the left of the rush sign a smudged vertical line appears, and further to the left  we can reasonably discern the the other walls of the mansion. I have waited a long time for this confirmation, while others have been seeing as a fence (Hamilton 2006: 97-102). 

   Also in the vicinity is a small circle with a dot, apparently the head of a snake, with its body represented by a line extending to the wavy line (M); the snake is the letter N in the alphabet, and in the Alpha-Beta order of the letters the sequence  LMN is at the half-way point, but in this Ha-La-H.a-Ma system only N is at the centre of the line; but this scribe is perhaps reminding us that M and N really belong together, implying that he knew the alternative order.
   Note that at least 18 of the 22 letters in the Iron Age (Phoenician) alphabet had a counterpart in the ancient syllabary (which likewise represented only 22 consonants) but this form of H. (mansion) is absent from the syllabary. It appears quite clearly in the top left corner of Thebes alphabet 1, and in the same position on Thebes 2 (but indistinct).

   Finally, the mansion-sign (06, Egyptian h.wt) is  added here to reinforce the fact that the third letter in the series is H. (Het in Hebrew).
[A4]  M
Here the text is transcribed mw n3. The first character consists of three parallel lines (actually wavy lines in the hieroglyph, M33b, “three ripples”, mw, ‘water’).  The single “ripple” is Egyptian N (from nt ‘water’), and in the West Semitic syllabary it functions as mu (an allograph of the rush sign for mu, as seen in section [A3] above); in the proto-alphabet it is M, and only two of its waves remain (Colless 1988: 44-45; Hamilton 2006: 138-144). The proto-alphabetic sign, here with four waves,  could indicate that a word starting with m precedes it, or even the word from which M originates, possibly mûna (the plural ending n, as in Arabic and Aramaic, whereas Hebrew, for example, has m; cp. Arabic -ûna versus Ugaritic -ûma). In my reading of the Sinai proto-alphabetic inscriptions, both -n and -m are attested: "prefects" (Sinai 346), s.btm "handfuls" (Sinai 375).

   In this case the symbol has to be interpreted as the West Semitic letter of the proto-alphabet (M), not Egyptian N; the serpent is there perhaps to remind the reader that the Semitic letter N is the snake.
[A5]  Q
I am reasonably convinced that the HLH.M sequence is present in A1-A4. But where does it go from here? In the attested examples of this order (from Syria-Palestine and Arabia) the next letter should be Q, as recognized by Haring (193b, though Haring’s Table 1 erroneously shows O) followed by W, and then Sh and R.
   The text is damaged, and Haring's transcription is r/t/d ssh p3. The second sign is understood by Haring as scribal apparatus (Y3), including palette. The West Semitic word r-sh-p refers to ‘plague’ or the god of pestilence, or ‘burning’. The accompanying object looks like a pot with a handle and a spout; it could be for pouring libations. The letter Q was originally a cord wound on a stick (qaw, a line, a cord used for measuring) sometimes with one end of the cord projecting at the top (Colless 1988: 49-50); this is widely attested in the inscriptions, and on both copies of the alphabet from Thebes, but Hamilton overlooks this and argues for Qop as a monkey, using the letter that is actually Sadey for his fruitless chase (2006: 209-221). This is not an ape that is confronting us here, but it could be a human head, inverted, with ears and neck. The name of the letter R is Rosh, ‘head’, and rssh might be a transcription of that. Rather than hieroglyph D1 (head in profile) this would be D2 (front view of head with neck and ears and eyes, h.r ‘face’).  However, the initial R of the text is not certain, and the final –p3 is left unexplained.
   The symbol could even be F34 heart (Egn ’ib, WS lbb), and this would lead to a whole new round of speculation.

   Schneider introduces another possibility: the second character is Q (N29 hill), and hence the combination qp, and I might suggest that here is our ape, to go with the letter-name Qop; but the accompanying symbol is difficult to relate to hieroglyph E32 (sacred baboon) or E33 (gf monkey) or any of the additional forms of "singe" (E32 - E71, in Jan Buurman et al, Inventaire des signes hiéroglyphiques, Paris 1988, 105-106). 
   But the supposed r q p 3 is explained  by Schneider as Semitic qab (a measure, with the vessel symbol as "classifier") preceded by the preposition l, so that the Q is the main agent in the sequence.  However,  ultimately we must accept that the accompanying symbol is a perfect match with hieroglyph W23 (jar with handles, Gardiner, 530), which is associated with a word qrh.t "vessel".    With regard to the accompanying word, West Semitic has qb`(t) "drinking vessel".                                [A6] W 
The text to accompany this sixth sign is lost, but it must have been brief. Haring suggests, plausibly, that it is a seated man with arms hanging (hieroglyph A7, wrd ‘tired’). I have seen this in association with an early alphabetic inscription from Timna in the Wadi Arabah (Colless 2010) but I took it to be an ideogram there.  Notice that the word wrd ("wearied"!) begins with the expected W in the series.
  {The following two paragraphs from my first draft are now obsolete. }
   {Another possibility springs to mind, with inversion once again (as for A5 above). Could this be hieroglyph M16, “clump of papyrus” which was used in a hieratic form for h. at the start of section A3 above? Hamilton (2006: 196-209) invokes this as his origin for Sadey, after having employed the true S. character for Q, and his pet monkey (In his note 254 he labels my choice of V33, a tied bag, as “bizarre”, but that true S. sign could be lurking at B6 below.) In the present connection, Hamilton (200, Fig. 2.61) provides drawings of early hieratic versions of M15 (“clump of papyrus with buds bent down’) which match the character here before us (without inverting it) and compares them with South Arabian forms of S.; this is a very attractive idea.
  { My very tentative suggestion is that we have an inverted K here, and it stems from the identification I make for the three-branched character which is taken to be S. by others, but in my scheme as syllabic KI and alphabetic K, and it would derive from kippa ‘palm branch’, alongside a hand sign for KA and an alternative K, from kap ‘palm of hand’ (Colless 1998: 43-44, modified in 1992: 78-79). However, this character could simply be a hand sign with only three digits shown (the example on Thebes 1 is like this, but it could be either animal or vegetable), but the bent middle figure is puzzling. Yet again the writer’s intentions are not yet clear to us.}
[A7]  ?
No text is available on the broken tablet for the last sign on side A.  Haring proposes a phallus or an animal. If it is a letter of the alphabet it could be a human arm (yad) with the hand pointing downwards, and hence Y.
   We now turn the tablet over to side B, the reverse side, which Haring accepts as containing the final half of the end of the inscription, and on which he sees six items. (Click for enlargement)

This is “lost except for some traces”; or else there was never anything there; but I will retain Haring’s numbering.
[B2]  T?
The tentative transcription is t/r/d/n.w-t3…(?); the final cluster of three marks is left undeciphered. Haring’s guess is the name of the cobra goddess Rnn.t. The female determinative sign (hieroglyph B1, a seated woman) is present, and the Semitic goddess TNT might be intended. If the initial lettter is T, the expected symbol at the end would be a cross (+ or x); the x is vaguely possible; or else the TNT symbol, which is a female version of the rejoicer.
Two ibises and two reed flowers, and a few more undecipherable marks, give us bby. The symbol looks like a beetle or a bee. If it were an ox-head with a neck (like the one on Thebes 2, or ’A in the syllabic texts from Byblos) and there were two Egyptian vultures (G1 3, ‘aleph) instead of ibises, then 33 could represent ’l, but there is no p or b to produce ’lp. Still there are marks preceding the ibises, which could be the true initial letter. If 3 for Aleph were to fill the gap, we would have ’bb, ‘green ear of corn’, or the month of Abib, to go with the sedge shoots in [A3] above, and we begin to wonder whether this could be a calendar of some kind, with twelve months itemized.
The first letter of the text is the Egyptian G (W11, a ring-stand for pots, nst ‘seat’); it can transcribe Semitic g, q, k, or gh.  Haring’s transcription is gr(y), for which he proposes ‘bird’, and the accompanying symbol is apparently a bird in flight.  After the ear of barley in section [B3], Hebrew goren (‘threshing floor’) comes to mind. However, next to the supposed bird is an example of proto-alphabetic Sh (shimsh, ‘sun’, based on the symbol of the sun-disc with a serpent on either side) and the main figure could be the single serpent with the sun. Can we be sure that the initial letter is G?
[B5] Dalt?? door
Haring gives t3’ity(?) and makes numerous suggestions for the symbol (sarcophagus, shrine, temple door, vertical loom) and the word (temple door, Tait the goddess of weaving, bale of linen, loincloth, curtain). It reminds me of the grapevine structure (cp. M42) which is the letter Gh(ayin) from ghinab, ‘grape’.
The transcription dr “seems inescapable”, Haring remarks, and the symbol appears to be a vessel. It certainly looks like a pot, but it could be a bag, which is the sign used for S. (Sadey), as already noted. The D is a fire-drill (U28), and d is also used for Semitic s. (Sadey).  My long-held acrophonic source for S. is s.rr, ‘tied bag’ (Colless 1988: 48-49). Am I having yet another Eureka experience here?
   As is ever the case, only the person who composed this document knew what it means. Maybe the HLH.M sequence was coincidental here; it is extremely difficult to make the expected sequence continue according to rule.
   What could the significance of this document be? Was it apotropaic, using Semitic signs and spells and names of goddesses, to ward off evil in the tomb? The West Semitic serpent spells in Egyptian royal tomb inscriptions (5th Dynasty)might offer an analogy here, but I can not see a connection (Richard C. Steiner, Early Northwest Semitic Serpent Spells in the Pyramid Texts, Winona Lake, 2011).

July 2018.
It now appears that this document is a mnemonic guide to the two standard systems for arranging the letters of the alphabet: the HLH.M and the 'ABGD schemes.
   The single-symbol "classifiers" (Schneider, 104) seem to be semantic and phonetic indicators. In some cases we see hieroglyphs corresponding to the West Semitic letters: A1 H, A2 L, A3 H., A4 M.
.... more examples.
    Merkvers (Schneider 106b - 107a)
    It is not a complete document, though it may be a copy of the beginnings of two texts
   {Neither Haring nor myself have succeeded in finding the standard sequence past the H-L-H.M incipit, and perhaps we should accept this as a remarkable coincidence.}
   However, more opinions are needed on the right readings for the hieratic texts and symbols on the document. and other suggestions for the purpose and purport of this intriguing artefact.
Note that the two inventories of the letters of the alphabet from Thebes have no set scheme for organizing the signs; they differ from each other in their arrangement.

(Note again that when I place a dot after a letter it should be understood as actually being beneath the letter, in accordance with the standard transcription system for h., s., z., t. .)

For reference here is the H-L-H.M sequence (from Ugarit and Beth-Shemesh):
H L H. M Q W Sh/Th R B T (D) K N H S. S´  P ‘ D./Z. G D Gh T. Z (D) Y

[1] Haring (193-195) conveniently summarizes the evidence for the use of the HLH.M and ’ABG systems of arranging the letters.
[2] Gordon Hamilton, The Origins of the West Semitic Alphabet in Egyptian Scripts (Washington, DC 2006). This book is dedicated to the memory of Romain F. Butin, S.M. (1871-1937), but Hamilton follows the teachings of the William Foxwell Albright school, particularly as transmitted to him by his mentor Frank Moore Cross at Harvard University. To my mind, Butin’s writings on the early alphabet (in Harvard Theological Review!) should be the starting point for any research in this field.
[4] For my views on this and the other letters of the original alphabet, see the essay cited in the previous note, and also my response to Orly Goldwasser:
[5] Tables of signs used by ancient Egyptians for transcribing foreign words are available in:  James E. Hoch, Semitic Words in Egyptian Texts of the New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period (Princeton 1994) 431-437, 487-512; Benjamin Sass, Studia Alphabetica (Freiburg 1991) 8-27.

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