Friday, July 06, 2007



This sandstone statuette (24 centimetres in length) was found in the ruins of an Egyptian temple in the Sinai Peninsula, on the site of the ancient turquoise mines that were exploited by the Pharaohs in the Bronze Age (before 1200 BCE).

It is now housed in the British Museum, and several years ago I went there to see it; I already had plenty of pictures from books, and my friend Alexandros Zaharopoulos had been permitted to take several close-up photographs for me previously, but I wanted to view it with my own eyes. It is not on display, so I was taken behind the scenes to the West Asian section and the Egyptian department, but neither of them knew where the sphinx was. Finally the egyptologists dug it up, and I was taken into a small room where a young custodian allowed me to hold it for a few minutes. "It's closing time" he announced abruptly, and whisked it away.

There is writing on it, perhaps the riddle of the sphinx?

It was discovered by the archeologist William Flinders Petrie, together with other inscribed objects found in the temple and also in and around the mines. Most of the inscriptions are hieroglyphic Egyptian, but many of them display the unknown script seen here. Actually, this sphinx has examples of both scripts, and the egyptologist Alan Gardiner was able to solve the riddle: the name of the goddess it represented is there in Egyptian writing and in the original alphabet, which apparently borrowed Egyptian hieroglyphs to create its letters.

This side shows [2] the Egyptian hieroglyphic text, above [3] another line of the presumed alphabetic script.

The largest character is a square, with a bird inside it; this is the hieroglyph for the goddess Hathor (Khat-Khor); the bird is a hawk, representing the god Horus, and the square is a shrine; Hat-Hor, as the mother of Horus, enshrines him. She was a goddess who was especially dear to people who ventured far from home on military or mining expeditions. She is here described as "[Lady] of turquoise" (that means the deity protecting the members of the expedition searching for this precious stone, but this part of the inscription will be disregarded for our purposes here). The hoe-sign stands for mr, "beloved", and so some one or some thing is "beloved of Hathor".

A reasonable assumption would be that [3] the line of enigmatic writing below this says the same thing in a different language and script. We know from Egyptian inscriptions on the site that West Asians were present, speakers of Semitic languages. The words for the verb "love" in West Semitic (Ugaritic, Phoenician, Hebrew) are DD (the root in the names David and Dido), and 'aHaB (which begins with a glottal stop suggesting a choking sensation, with the H and B evoking heavy breathing).

Now, we know that the name of the letter ' (glottal stop) is 'Aleph, meaning "ox", which became Greek Alpha (standing for the vowel a), so the ox-head here could be 'Aleph, if this is the original alphabet. The ox-head can be seen at the top of the table of alphabetic signs from Thebes (top left). Its development into A is obvious: it has simply been inverted, so that the horns have become legs.

(A sketch of the document is provided here for easier reference.)

Further, the second letter of the alphabet is B, Beth , Greek Beta, and it means "house"; and the square sign could represent the ground-plan of a simple dwelling (as in Egyptian writing, where the hieroglyph for house is a rectangle or a square, with an opening for the doorway). On the protoalphabet table from Thebes (top right), B consists of an upright line and a triangle (the door of the house is open).

This would give us two thirds of 'HB, and it leads us to the supposition that H is represented by the figure in between the 'Aleph and the B; this is obviously a person in a highly emotional state, presumably "celebrating", and the Hebrew word for this is HLL (as in Halleluyah, "Celebrate Yahweh", or "Praise the Lord"). With hindsight we can say that this character lost its body and legs, becoming E (H in Semitic, and the vowel E[psilon] in Greek). The H can be seen dimly under the B on the Theban alphabetic ostrakon.

Thus, the root "love" has been deciphered, and if it had M before 'HB it would produce a passive participle, "loved" (Pu`al form in Hebrew). The wavy line is equivalent to the Egyptian hieroglyph for "water", and the Semitic word for this is mu or mayim. On our oldest copy of the alphabet, the M is a thin line at the bottom. So we seem to have M'HB "beloved", and now we need to find a goddess, a divine lady.

It is known that the Semitic goddess of the city of Byblos (in Lebanon) was worshipped as B`LT, which means "Lady"; it is the feminine form of the well-known title Ba`al, "Lord". The T would indicate the feminine ending -at. We will assume that this writing system was like the Phoenician and Hebrew alphabets, showing consonants but not vowels (and with hindsight we can also say that we are here looking at the prototype of the alphabet).

In my transcription of B`LT the letter represented by` is `Ayin (as distinct from ', 'Aleph, the glottal stop, in M'HB), and `ayin means "eye". In the sequence before us we seem to have an eye (in a vertical position), and the same set of signs can be seen on the other side of the sphinx (see the full picture at the top). We can see a B (house), then an eye, followed by L (like an inverted italic l) and T (a cross, +); both the L and T have changed little in their progress through the Phoenician alphabet to the Greco-Roman alphabet. On the ancient alphabetic table, `Ayin, the eye-sign is in the bottom left corner, with L to the right of it (a shepherd's crook, rather than a coil of rope, as sometimes suggested); and, incidentally, K is above it and Y is below it (both of which will receive our attention ere long). T is hard to locate: it may be the tiny cross to the right of the M, at the bottom of the tablet, or it is attached to a leg of the jubilater (H), as shown in my drawing.

Note that we have M'HB`LT here (a piece has broken off, leaving most of the L and possibly part of the T, but the the full B`LT is on the other side [4], so we can be sure that it is not the god Ba`al who is being invoked); still, M'HB B`LT is what we should have (and this version with -BB- is found in other inscriptions from the turquoise mines); but there is a dot in the square B, and this may indicate that the letter is doubled (a practice exemplified in the Hebrew Bible).

The B`LT on the other side has L preceding it. The same sequence is found on another statuette from the same temple (Sinai 346; our sphinx is numbered Sinai 345). LB`LT clearly means "to" or "for" (la) "Ba`alat", so both objects were offerings to the goddess.

We might expect the donor of the sphinx to have inscribed his name on it, as the one who is "beloved of Ba`alat". In my view, he has identified himself by name and occupation, and stated that this is his offering to the Lady.

Looking first at [1] the combination of signs below the neck, between the paws, we can see a square (B) with N inside it, though we are viewing it sideways. The origin of N is a serpent (usually an erect cobra, as here); the first letter on the dedicatory inscription at the bottom of the picture is N (a bent line, representing a snake). The West Semitic word for "snake" is nakhash, and by the "acrophonic principle" the first sound in the word that goes with the picture is the one that is sounded; we have already seen this operating in the case of the house, Beth (bayt) standing for B. On the Theban alphabetic ostrakon, the N is a line next to the B, stretching from the H into the top right corner.

It would appear that the scribe has imitated the form of the Hathor hieroglyph (a hawk inside an edifice) and has put the snake inside the house, to produce BN, the Semitic word for "son" (bin or ben). The two letters above are K and R, I suggest, identifying the person as "son of KR". The Roman letter R still shows the human head from which it arose (including a beard); here we find a human head and neck, and even shoulder. Our letter K (Greek Kappa) is acknowledged as deriving from a hand with fingers (Hebrew Kaph, meaning "hand" or "palm of the hand"); but I suspect that the vegetational "palm" (Hebrew kippah) could also be used, and that may be what we see here (with a few token leaves only). On the Theban protoalphabet, the K is on top of the eye-sign; indeed, it seems to be poking its stem into the hapless eye. The R is in the middle of the column on the far left: a head with an eye and a hair-line.

The reading BNKR, could say "Son of KR", with KR as the name of the father. However, I think I have found this same sequence (bnkr) in a number of other inscriptions in this mining area. Since kur means "furnace", and since various pieces of metallurgical equipment have been found here, with several inscriptions referring to this apparatus, it is clear that the Semites would have been engaged in making and mending the copper tools used in the mining, and they were thus "sons of the furnace", written without vowels as BNKR. Here on the sphinx, the expression could be singular or plural: "The metalworker(s) beloved of Ba`alat". However, I will eventually propose that the name of the donor is also inscribed on this statuette.

Turning to the the signs in the dedicatory line [4], we find the other hand-sign, Yod (which became Y, I, and J in our alphabet) standing next to the L; the word yad means "forearm" (including the hand), and that is what we see here, with the fingers pointing down. A similar form appears on the Theban protoalphabet (bottom left). The Y could stand for a whole word, or the end of the word before "to Ba`alat". One possibility is the suffix -ya, "my".

The letter preceding the Y is a puzzle. After wrestling with it for years I decided it is the prototype of our Q/q. Looking at both photographs (the full figure and the closeup), I see a stem with a dot on the middle of it and an oblique stroke coming out from the dot. This corresponds to the Egyptian hieroglyph depicting a cord wound on a stick (numbered by Gardiner as V25, the New Kingdom form of V24, which does not have the leftwards projecting stroke). The Hebrew word qaw means "a string", a measuring line, often used metaphorically by the prophets in the Bible; in my world builders have such a cord wound around a pencil. The extra stroke in the pictograph would be the end of the string poking out. (This extra feature is significant for dating: it shows that the sphinx belongs in the New Kingdom and the Late Bronze Age, after 1600 BCE, because the normal form in the preceding period, the Middle Bronze Age, was simply -o- , though this continued into the LBA.) In the development of the alphabet in the Iron Age (after 1200 BCE) the lines at the top disappeared; they are not in the Phoenician Q, nor the Roman Q. The Hebrew name for the letter is not Qaw, but Qoph, and this apparently means "monkey"; presumably this designation arose when the original reference of the sign was forgotten. The South Arabian alphabet retained the top of the stick above the wound cord. On the protoalphabetic tablet, Q stands in the middle, stretching up to the mouth-sign and the inverted door; it has two appendages at the top.

The sign to the left of Q on the dedication to Ba`alat line of writing is ||, two roughly parallel lines; on the Theban ostrakon (top left corner) it appears in the more normal horizontal stance [=]. This character is known to represent Dh, as in English this, and in fact the sign says dhu (meaning "this") in several of the other Sinai protoalphabetic inscriptions. Taking it here as an introductory "This (is)" (no verb is required in Semitic syntax), we can read the remaining letters as NQY. In Eastern Semitic (Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian) there is a word niqu, meaning "offering" (a gift made to a deity). This word is not found elsewhere in West Semitic texts, but Babylonian was the international language of the Bronze Age, from `Iraq to Egypt, and this educated scribe could have felt free to use it. The Y, as stated earlier, is a first-person suffix -ya, "my".

So, he has written: "This is my offering to Ba`alat" [4]. And who is he? I would look for his name in [5] the marks on the shoulder (look at the photograph above). There are two small characters: one is apparently an ox-head (`Aleph); and choosing from the remaining letters in the repertoire, I would say the other is a fish. The argument rages over the sound represented by this sign: some insist that it is D, because the Hebrew word for "fish" is dag; others (including myself) identify it as S, which is called Samek in Hebrew (samk is an Arabic word used for "fish" by the descendants of the Cana`anites and Phoenicians in Lebanon). If the fish-sign is S, we have to accept an alternative sign for S in this shape -|-|-| (but it stands vertically, like a telegraph pole). It could conceivably represent the fish after all the flesh had been eaten, but I would think that it represents a human spinal column (like the Egyptian hieroglyph R11, a spinal column, representing stability, to be compared with F41, depicting vertebrae), with samk meaning "support". These alternative forms of Samek do not occur together in any of the inscriptions known to me (except the 'abgadaries from Thebes. Eventually the fish-sign disappeared and the column stood firm, representing S in the Phoenician alphabet, and X in the Greek alphabet, but it has no place in the Roman alphabet.

The character for D is not a fish but a door: the Hebrew name Dalet and Greek Delta reveal the common noun dalt, "door". I think we can settle the matter here and now; in the next inscription that we shall consider (Sinai 376), the fish and the door are found side by side (in adjacent columns). Similarly, in the Theban copy of the protoalphabet, the fish, S, is situated above the Q and to the right of the 'Aleph, and beside it is the door (inverted), D. One response to this would be to say that it is not a door but an ax, since the door post is longer than the door itself; and the ax could be Z (though I can not find a word for ax which starts with Z, and I cannot see an ax anywhere else in the protoalphabetic inscriptions). I will assume that this scribe chooses to draw his door-sign; another ostrakon from the Theban collection has anumn-sign remained, becoming Greek X (ks), but not passing over into the Roman alphabet. even longer post, but it also has what I think may be the Z, |><|, as also on the short inscription (Thebes 4) that I have described elsewhere, which has this Z and Dh. Finding the double-triangle Z among the jumble of characters on the alphabetic tablet (Thebes 1) is not easy; it may be lurking in the faint marks on the far right (next to H), or else in the traces next to Q and above M.

Accepting that the fish is S, then the name of the donor on the sphinx is 'S, which could be 'Asa, which means "Myrtle", but it is a masculine name, borne by a king in the Bible (1 Kings 15:8-22).

Thus, the Canaanian text declares: "[4] This is my offering to Ba`alat; [5] 'Asa [1] Smith ("son of the furnace"), [3] beloved of Ba`alat".

But the combination 'S (ox and fish) occurs in five other inscriptions from this ancient mining region, and three of them seem to be concerned with our friend 'Asa. (The others are Sinai 368 and 375, each bearing a word for "granary": 'sm [368] and 'st [375].) The story of Asa the Semitic Smith will be told in subsequent chapters. There is a historical novel waiting to be written on the basis of this evidence.

In this first instalment, the following 14 letters of the protoalphabet have been encountered:
'A B Dh H Y K L M N S ` Q R T
'Alp (ox) Bayt (house) Dhayp (eyebrow) Hillul (celebration) Yad (forearm) Kap (hand, palm) Lamd (crook) Mu (water) Nahhash (snake) Samk (fish; and spine) `ayin (eye) Qaw (line, cord on stick) Ra'sh (head) Taw (signature mark).

More details on this document (Sinai 345) can be found in my published article: Brian E. Colless, The proto-alphabetic inscriptions of Sinai, Abr-Nahrain 28 (1990) 1-52, particularly 13-15.

1 comment:

Mnephonics said...

I have a strange request. I have been having awake visions. I am awakened from my sleep and ancient symbols, letters, images appear in my 'neurological sight'. I was wondering if you would be so kind as to help me at least figure out the meaning of the ancient symbols. Would that be possible? Thank you in advance for considering.