Tuesday, January 16, 2007




This is the Izbet Sartah ostrakon, a piece of a broken jar, a potsherd, with five lines of writing on it, discovered in Israel in 1976, at `Izbet S.art.ah (near Aphek), perhaps 'Eben-`Ezer, where Israelites and Philistines fought a battle (1 Samuel 4). It is thought to date from the 12th or 11th century BCE, early in the Iron Age.

My drawing makes the letters clearer, but there is some guesswork involved in it.

The bottom line of the inscription is an ancient version of the alphabet (running from left to right). The letters have now lost their pictorial form, as seen on the proto-alphabetic ostraka from ancient Thebes in Egypt.

My suggested reading for the letters in the abagadary or abecedary (line 5) is:

'A B G D H[E] M W H. Z T.[Theta] Y K L - N | S P `ayin[O] S. Q R Sh T

H[E] (the sound h), which was originally a person jubilating (as in Halleluyah), with arms raised, became the vowel E in the Greco-Roman alphabet (the body has dropped off, and only the head and arms remain).
H. (emphatic h) became the letter H (Greek vowel Eta, Roman consonant H).
T. (emphatic t) is Greek Theta, Hebrew Tet.
`ayin [O] was a guttural consonant (originally depicting an eye, and often still having a dot in the circle, representing the pupil), but it was used by the Greeks and Romans for the vowel o.

The word abecedary (Latin abecedarium) is constructed from ABCD, the first four letters of the Roman alphabet; it means a document for learning the alphabet, or simply a copy of the alphabet. You will find the word alphabet (a set of characters used in a writing system) in any English dictionary, but you will need a large dictionary to locate abecedary (and also ostrakon or ostracon); but no reference book will define abagadary for you, because I made the word up myself. It refers to the Semitic alphabet, which starts with the sequence 'a b g d; and this order was carried over into the Hellenic alphabet.

The term alphabet has its origin in Alpha-Beta, the first two letters of the Grecian alphabet, which was derived from the Phoenician alphabet. These two names are meaningless in Greek, but in West Semitic languages (Phoenician and Hebrew) 'alep means 'ox' and bayt means 'house'. The same applies to the next two letters, namely Gamma and Delta: Semitic gamel is a boomerang, and dalet is a door.

The original symbol for 'Aleph-Alpha was the head of an ox, with horns, as on the Thebes ostraka;  on the Izbet Sartah ostrakon the sign is lying on its side; and ultimately it will be inverted, with the snout at the top and the horns at the bottom [A].

The student scribe who did this exercise on the potsherd has made some mistakes. In the sequence KLMN the M is missing; it has been placed earlier, between the H[E] and the H[h.]; it is a vertical wavy line representing water; the last letter on the long line 4 would be a large M, and there are two small instances in line 3, while the third character on the top line would also be M. The letter that should follow H[E] is W, represented by a nail or hook, looking like 0-- or )-- . Apparently he confused the two labial consonants W and M ('labial' means 'made by the lips' ). He has placed his W beneath the M.

Another labial, B, is difficult to distinguish from L. In the abagadary line, B is smaller than L, but in the text this criterion does not work. B started out as a square house, and L as a herdsman's crook; so B should be angular and L curly. Accordingly, the fourth letter in the fourth line is B, whereas the other four 9-shaped characters are L.

The proto-alphabet had more signs than the Hebrew and Phoenician alphabet. One significant omission is another guttural H (kh), represented by a hank of thread; it appears in the bottom right corner of the Thebes proto-alphabetic ostrakon 1. We know that its place in the sequence of letters was between G and D (so there is such a thing as an abagakhadary).

But here is my reading and interpretation of it as a Hebrew statement, in which the student-scribe tells us what he is doing, namely practising the letters of the alphabet (line 1a), and he muses about how writing works (lines 1b-3); as I see it, he is hoping that this little document will make him immortal (line 4). We would expect his name to appear somewhere, and the sequence bn (early in line 4) could be the word for 'son', and thus his name is ‘ w p b n h. g (`wp Ben Haggai), instead of reading "the eye and the mouth, with the resting of the voice".

Remember, there is no separation of words, and no indication of vowels (this is a consonantal script, whereby the reader provides the vowels, as in modern Hebrew and Arabic newspapers). However, after closer examination of the text, and comparing it with the Qeiyafa ostracon, I have discovered that it is syllabic, not simply consonantal. The shape and stance of each sign indicates which vowel (a, i, u) accompanies the consonant.
A thorough analysis of the four lines of text will be posted elsewhere:
But here is a consonantal reading of the text.
(1) ’lmd ’t[t] | ’ ‘
(2) k ttn ‘ rh. ’t b ’z|[n b ‘]t. ‘l t.t.
(3) s.mq mrq
‘ w p b n h. g ’t l h|d zqn? ‘t ‘ ’ ‘ l ’ h.ld ‘lm

(1) I am learning the signs. I am seeing
(2) that the eye gives the breath of a sign into the ea[r by a styl]us on clay
(3) (which is) dried (and) polished.
‘ wp ben h.g has come to the splendour of old age. See, now I shall be seen for a thousand lifetimes of the world.

To achieve this translation I have applied a principle that I have found operating in the earliest alphabetic inscriptions, from the Bronze Age.
Each sign in the system (a logoconsonantary) can have several functions:
(1) simple consonantal acrophonogram (Bayt, 'house' stands merely for its initial consonant, b).
(2) logogram (B can represent 'house'; N can stand for 'snake'; `ayin can represent 'eye', as in line 2 and possibly 4);
(3) ideogram (`ayin 'eye' for 'see', possibly in line 1b and 4);
(4) complex consonantal rebogram ('aleph can stand as a rebus for other words or part of another word; so the ox sign can represent 'lp 'ox', or 'lp 'thousand' (line 4).

The translation certainly fits the context of an abagadary inscribed on a piece of dried and polished clay by a student who is learning to write; and his handiwork has certainly survived to cause us to remember him (and his name, Ben Haggai).

The document is now in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.


Ryan said...

It's intriguing that you mention the bet should be more angular. It strikes me that any Semitic speaker would reconize bet and be prone to draw it that way. Why assume this is Semitic?

Anonymous said...

It's a strong comment, because weren't some of the scribes accents date back to Egypt?