Credit: Felix Höflmayer et al., 2021 (figure by J. Dye, which is clearer in its original setting)
This is work in progress; I am posting it at this constructional 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 affliction; with your compunction and our shared compassion, this ailment can be cured, and the masks concealing shamefaced countenances can be removed. However, this journey is a long and arduous trek, tortuous and torturous, with a profusion of details to be absorbed, and so you may prefer to just look at the pictures and try to recognize some of the scary characters: logograms, syllabograms, consonantograms, acropictophonograms, rebograms. Or perhaps you will be happy to take my word for it: practitioners in this field are blithely and blissfully unaware of the disgrace they are heaping upon themselves by blindly disregarding the presence of the early West Semitic proto-syllabary as the constant companion of its own offspring, the proto-consonantary (that is, the proto-alphabet). This is an opportunity for me to give an overall summary of my system, and enshrine my ideas on the Worldwide Web, allowing them to hover over the closed dark grottoes where the early alphabet ìnvalids feed on the fetid flesh of invâlid fallacies and fantasies; and when I have departed to even higher realms, in my original form as stardust, the rock ceilings may collapse under the weight of this knowledge, and the healing waters may cleanse the sick, and the illuminating light restore them to the health of truth; meanwhile, methinks I need a remedy for my hyperbolic colic. Confession: I have been working on this project since April, and I still can not say that I have deciphered the message in this inscription; I would be disappointed if I had to conclude that the scribe was merely practising random letters. However, today (14 June 2021) I can report that I have come to a tentative conclusion that the message on the sherd contains the verb `BD (work, transitive) and the noun GANNAT (garden), and it says: "I am cultivating the garden".
Here we go again: from the ruin-mound of ancient Lakish (modern Tel Lachish in Israel, Arabic name Tell ed-Duweir) 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 the epigraphist Haggai Misgav and the rest of the team (Felix Höflmayer, Lyndelle Webster, Katharina Streit) have jumped to the incorrect conclusion; in football terms, Misgav has scored an own goal, by mistakenly kicking the ball into the wrong net, and losing a point for his side; 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 might be 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 could 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. Never mind, it is still my mission to speak out when academics inadvertently cross the line between truth and error, and to tell them that they are innocently guilty of a serious transgression: promulgating incorrect information about the four early West Semitic scripts.
On the scale of merit, in their review of "other potential early alphabetic examples from the area" ("Historical context") they do not include any syllabic inscriptions; in contrast, Christopher Rollston's survey of the evidence (in his essay cited immediately below) is heavily on the demerit side, unable to distinguish syllabic from consonantal, and it will be my task to arrange his monomial list of plants (an unhealthy monocultural crop) into four separate garden-beds (this metaphor is appropriate, because Semitic words for garden will have an important part to play in my discussion of the data).
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. This is a stupendous claim, or perhaps a stupid idea, if the writing is actually 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 (and that is where I studied it, not being a subscriber, but I buy it at my local shop every week). Three scholars were asked for their opinion: Aaron Koller (Yeshiva University, New York) was doubtful, as he could not fit this evidence into "our current theories about the invention of the alphabet" (but it has a primary place in my theory, and I thought he knew that from our past correspondence); Benjamin Sass (Tel Aviv University) does not know what the script is, but these objects do not challenge his ideas of the alphabet's invention (but they do, in their own way); John Darnell (Yale University) was more open, suggesting that these signs could represent "a proto-history" of the alphabet (and he is right, but he would not know why, even though we have discussed his discovery of really early alphabetic writing in the Wadi el-Hol in Egypt, and he has responded favourably to my interpretation).
Glenn Schwartz, one of the archaeologists who found these objects, is Professor of Archaeology at Johns Hopkins University; his colleague P. Kyle McCarter, now W. F. Albright Professor Emeritus, is listed as one of his consultants; McCarter works in the field of West Semitic epigraphy and is reputedly an expert on the origin of the alphabet; he 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 (1891-1971, the polymath who practised Biblical Archaeology alongside philology. 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 literature, having studied Assyriology with Benjamin R. Foster, and he was expecting to find cuneiform texts on clay tablets in his excavations, but instead he discovered linear markings on little clay cylinders. Glenn has been mulling over the script for years, and has now plumped (in an injuriously 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 script), 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 (cited above), 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 (which has 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 the one 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, if scholars take their blindfolds and blinkers off. By the way, the considerable number of shared signs in the syllabary and the consonantary will be an important aspect of our interpretation of the new Lakish inscription.
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 ground-plan of a temple when you are looking for it); for those professionally involved in this area it may possibly be funny-peculiar and offensive to boot.
Here beginneth the first lesson. George Mendenhall and myself each 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 (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, including Atlantic Europe and Transatlantic America. 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 (sometimes with a central dot), in the Iron Age, and went vocalic as O in the international alphabet; but the circle (with or without the dot that is present here) 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 which 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. OK. That tripodic figure is KA (actually three fingers of a hand, apparently, or think of it as a thumb with the four fingers in a V-form, or the three main fingers shown with the thumb and fourth finger embracing behind), and by sleight of hand it slipped into the alphabet as K; 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"); the word gu means "voice", which would be reminiscent of the term "true of voice" for deceased persons who have passed the judgement of the heart and gained entry to the realm of Osiris, the god of resurrection. 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.
 Tuba tubular amulets
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 minuscule 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 protect 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 broken 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 (learned by heart, as the saying still goes).
Further discussion on the the identification of the characters is given elsewhere: my 2007 recognition 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), and "The Mediterranean Diet in Ancient West Semitic Inscriptions", Damqatum 12, 3-19, Collesss 2016:4-5); so it has been published in academic journals, and both articles are available at: https://massey.academia.edu/BrianColless.
 Tuba tubular amulets
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, in these two places:
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; and her mother the proto-syllabary is not difficult to get on with, and yet she is shunned.
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
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 gives us the chronological dates and data: the Tuba script (recognizable to me 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 status 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; additionally, 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. (Rollston had been consulted about the writng on the figurines, but he failed to see their significance.)
 Puerto Rico figurines
Left figurine: 9 syllabograms of consonants `Ayin, H, T
(note crucifix-cross for a T- syllable)
Right figurine: The sun-sign Sh stands in the centre
(2 serpents guarding the disc)
Incidentally, it has now been proved that Mediteranean ships could have crossed the ocean to the Americas.
This fellowship of syllabary and consonantary can also be observed at a silver mine in Norway.
The largest collection of proto-consonantary inscriptions is at the Sinai turquoise mines (Colless 1990).
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, then 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, but 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.
 Cuneiform consonantary
'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 (and there is an analogy in the cuneo-consonantary with three characters for 'Alep with these three vowels); 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.
 Izbet Sartah (Ebenezer) neo-syllabic ostracon
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".; the `Ayin at the end of the first line says "see", as an ideogram. "I am learning the signs; I see that the eye gives the breath of a sign to the ear through a stylus on clay..." See the full presentation at the collesseum/abgadary site.
Again, the new syllabary and the new consonantary operated together. This is conveniently demonstrated in the two inscriptions from Shaaraim (Khirbet Qeiyafa, Sha`arayim, 'dual gates", the two-gated fortress overlooking the Elah Valley, where David confronted Goliath): the Qeiyafa 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 Qeiyafa jar is consonantal; it includes the name Eshbaal, a son of King Saul; he eventually became King of Israel, but he was presumably the governor who lived in the palace in this military base.
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 the frontispiece of his book; all the others were unwittingly 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 so 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)".
It so happens that a similar statement has been found in a syllabic inscription at a silver mine at Kongsberg in Norway.
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 from southern Egypt, 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 is apparently consonantal; at its centre, at the end of a line of writing, it has a door sign (a rectangle with a doorpost, the same as the letter Dalet on the Lakish sherd) which would say D /d/; the accompanying 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). The alphabetic tablet apparently has (at the start of its "D for door" line) a D (=), which should indicate that it is neither proto-syllabic nor neo-consonantal, but proto-consonantal, since that sign was not in the Byblos repertoire, though I have seen it in one inscription functioning as ZA; the usual ZA is an animal's tail, as on the Lahun Heddle Jack, and in the silver-mine inscription (above). If the inscription is proto-consonantal the 3-shaped letter beneath the door would be Th (thad "breast"), which becomes Sh in the neo-consonantary, and ultimately Greek Sigma and Roman S. The consonantal sign for Sh was the sun (shimsh "sun"), and it represented
Incidentally, to the right of the D is a 3 with an extra peak, representing three water-waves; this is the letter M. I confess I can not read this text, but I suspect the D is a logogram for "door".
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 there 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 one of the indicators of the proto-syllabary, representing 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 praxis of looking for logograms; in the absence of the person who wrote the message long ago I can not verify my interpretation, but the characters are certainly recognizable as belonging to the proto-syllabary.
At the same time it was a presentation of my typology of four categories of (non-cuneiform) West Semitic scripts, and their developments, in the Bronze Age (before 1200 BCE) and the Iron Age (after 1200 BCE):
 PROTO-SYLLABARY (Early Bronze to Early Iron) acro-picto-phonograms > syllabograms; also logograms, rebograms
 PROTO-CONSONANTARY (Middle Bronze to Late Bronze) acro-picto-phonograms > consonantograms; also logograms, rebograms
 NEO-CONSONANTARY (Late Bronze to Early Iron) reduced number of consonantograms; also logograms, rebograms
 NEO-SYLLABARY (Early Iron) neo-consonantal signs adapted to produce a syllabary, including the three vowels -u, -a, -i.
Gordon Hamilton has been productively prolific in publishing studies on West Semitic inscriptions of the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age, notably in his book The Origins of the West Semitic Alphabet in Egyptian Scripts (2006), and in his essay on Reconceptualizing the Periods of Early Alphabetic Scripts, in An Eye For Form (F. M. Cross Festschrift, 2014). Additionally, Gordon has enriched the field by bringing many early West Semitic inscriptions to light, with photographs, especially those that Flinders Petrie published with only drawings (Lahun heddle jack, Ajjul spouted cup); but he has overlooked the six immensely important documents from Thebes (highlighted here), which would force him to rethink some of his erroneous ideas; the two abgadaries in that collection should have been the starting point and foundation of his Harvard thesis, but he simply asserts the identity of each proto-alphabetic letter according to the tradition laid down by W. F. Albright (which was to some extent based on guesswork), as transmitted by F. M. Cross, the supervisor of the thesis, though GJH insists he had differences of opinion with FMC; but he has certainly departed from the scheme offered by Romain F. Butin (to whom Hamilton's book is reverently dedicated), the foundation on which my system is built. For my part, I can honestly say that Hamilton does cite my publications scrupulously in his book, though he apparently does not believe what I am saying; but he has no place for me in his chronology article, and that is understandable, because I have not yet published my ideas on dating criteria for early alphabetic inscriptions.
The approximate dates that Hamilton assigns to the Sinai inscriptions are generally helpful; in his book (Chapter 3.III) he rightly divides the corpus among three periods; we both agree that it is not a question of either Middle Kingdom or New Kingdom, but both MK and NK. In his essay, he sts up three periods: Early Alphabetic A (c. 1900 - 1400 BCE), B However, he is unable to recognize syllabic inscriptions and valiantly jousts with them to unseat them from their rightful status; then he forces them to falsely confess, consonantally and not syllabically; three examples of proto-syllabic texts that have been tortured with his inquisitional instruments are: Lahun heddle jack, Rifeh amulet, Megiddo gold ring.
Here is the heddle jack, from Egypt; it is pictured on the far left of the drawing; Hamilton's consonantal reading is at the bottom; the D seems secure, since we have seen that door elsewnere in Egypt (though in a syllabic inscription); the oval sign in the middle is taken to be an eye, hence `ayin, but I prefer it as a mouth, hence P (or PU), but Hamilton has formulated a firm law that there is no mouth-sign in the alphabet (we refuted that earlier, in the Thebes inscriptions); the character on the far right certainly looks like a bovine head, hence 'alep, but another choice is available.
ZA TU PU DA LU
Using a West Semitic (Hebrew) dictionary I can forcefully extract a meaning such as this:
"This (ZA) is a weaving (DALU) instrument (TUPU)"
Further details here: https://cryptcracker.blogspot.com/2020/08/lahun-syllabic-heddle-jack.html
Our new Lakish inscription
may not have enough graphemes for us to classify it definitively, but here are some samples of the categories, which may assist us in our quest.
(1) The proto-syllabary
Here are two more inscriptions on sherds from Lakish (written in ink); they were published in the journal Tel Aviv 3 (1976) 107-108, 109-110, and Plate 5. Both objects were found in Palace A in 1973. They each include letters that are known to me as exclusively proto-syllabic, together with signs that could be syllabic or consonantal. Many years ago my son Michael in Sydney made me a photocopy of these articles, thinking they might be useful to me, and they have languished ever since in an unstudied state, but have now miraculously and serendipitously revealed themselves at exactly the right time.
A proto-syllabic inscription from Lakish
the pentagonal sherd
The inscription on the pentagonal bowl-fragment was studied by Mordechai Gilula, who thought it was "Egyptian hieratic", comparable to examples from the 19th and 20th Dynasties, and in line with Ramesside inscriptions found in Lakish.
The top line is read confidently as "Tenth regnal year"; the supposed number 10 sign is at the right end of the line; it is a truncated oval (without a base), but here its right-hand side is admittedly not complete; it so happens that this symbol has a place in the proto-syllabary as `U (from `ushru "ten, tithe"); looking closely at its remains here, it seems to have a crossbar, producing a character like A, but with the angle rounded or flattened, and thus being an example of the M used to show mimation (-m) without a vowel at the end of words; or it is simply a small square, BA (from bayt "house") and it is in contact with the tail of the previous sign; if indeed we have a proto-syllabic text before us, then I would favour this interpretation, that this square represents the syllabogram BA; but it could be BU (reed), shaped like Roman F/f, and I will propose that the faded second sign in the line is also BU.
The triangular sherd was examined by André Lemaire, who thought that the original pot and the letters belonged to the Iron Age, and he characterized it as a schoolboy's exercise, using letters of the alphabet; Y. Aharoni added an editor's note, questioning Lemaire's interpretation, and suggesting the presence of hieratic numerals (10+1) at the end of the top line. We can start with the first sign in the top line, on the left: it is an eye with three vertical strokes emanating from it, representing tears flowing; this is known to be the syllabogram BI (bikitu, 'weeping'); another one, apparently, stands at the end (right side) of the third line; and there is one in the middle of the top line of the square sherd
RU BU LA BI NA YA PA BA GA NNA TU HU
Abundance (rubu) for (la) my son (binaya) and (pa) in (ba) his garden (gannatuhu)
This reminds me of the little pieces of paper with prayers in Hebrew placed in the interstices of the Western Wall at the site of the Jerusalem temple; sherds were the equivalent of scrap paper in the olden days. This reading, although tentative,provides a clue for the interpretation of the triangular sherd, though the new rectangular sherd may not fit this pattern.
Returning now to the triangular sherd, our task is made difficult by its murkiness. Another impediment is that there may be some syllabograms that were not attested in the Byblos texts; we certainly need to find such signs, but it is hard to discern even the characters we already know in this time-ravaged document.
We begin at the brief third line. which has two faded letters visible: first on the left (though a vertical stroke precedes it) is a snake, with the typical angular tail; second is the weeping eye, apparently, as in the top left corner; this combination gives us NABI, and this takes us to Lakish Letter 3 (Hebrew) in the period of the Babylonian invasion, where HNB' ('the prop
Does the second line suit the oracular genre? LA (night) DA (door) RA (head) YA: "to/for my circle, family, generation, dwelling"; but if the dot in the head is for doubling (rather than depicting an eye) , then this could say "for liberation" (Hebrew dror) with regard to slaves and captives. Anothe BI follows the YA, perhaps, and then the 'U (ear); this sequence produces a possible verb, yabi'u, "brings" (root BW' "come"); the ink blob at the end of the line looks lihe a fish, which should not trespass into the proto-syllabary, but if we allow it, the preceding sign is a circle, SHI (sun) and with the SA (fish) the root ShSS (plunder) emrges.
Can the top line reveal the theme we are seeking? The first letter is the familiar BI, (eye with three tears); next perhaps a dotted circle, SHI (sun), but it is more like a quadrilateral diamond figure, and thus H.U (h.udshu, new moon, or month), and this suggests that a date is being given; then we are confronted by a small square (BA, house?), but it has an upper part, making it as tall as the BI, and denoting DA (door). At the midpoint of the line we have a mess of smudged letters requiring long consideration ....
Even if we do not succeed in detecting the writer's intention in this triangular text, we know that it is using the proto-syllabary by the presence of the BI syllabogram (weeping eye), as also on the square sherd; and both documents have the equally distinctive LA sign (night symbol). Therefore this syllabic script was definitely employed at Lakish.
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 (for original Th; Hebrew ShWB "return", but Arabic ThWB), to further confirm this text as showing the short alphabet, that is, the neo-consonantal script.
Other examples, from temples:
Lakish ostracon (or Bowl 2, Sass Fig. 258; Colless, Fig. 06, 38-39)
sh y ` d r l l l
An offering of the flock to Lel (goddess of night)
Lakish ewer (Sass Fig. 156-160; Colless Fig. 07, 39)
m t n : sh y [l r b] t y ' l t
A gift (or Mattan) : an offering to my lady Elat
Are they syllabic? No, since they both have the Lamed that does not have a place in the proto-syllabary; likewise the Yod. So the next question will be: Is this the longer or shorter consonantary? If we focus on the word for offering, it is thought to have Th not Sh originally, though Richard Steiner disputes this; the problem is that in the neo-consonantary the Thad (breast) consonantogram has replaced the Shimsh (sun) sign, to represent both Th and Sh, and they look very much alike (if the solar disc is not included with the serpents); but they were sometimes distinguished by the breast being depicted vertically; the four drawings of Lakish bowl inscriptions are apparently all using the short alphabet, and two have vertical Sh/Th, and two have a horizontal version. There is much debate over the point in time when these two sounds coalesced, and the change from long to short alphabet is brought in to the discussion, and fourteenth century BCE (for example) is proposed; but we need to remember that in the proto-ayllabary (Early Bronze Age!) Sh and Th were not differentiated, so the breast said SHA and the sun was SHI; but more work needs to be done on the sibilants that were represented by Sh and S signs in the proto-syllabic texts (and we require many more documents to aid us in this research!).
Lastly, the Lakish bowl (Fig. 08 above), found in a tomb:
b sh l sh t | y m | y r h.
On the third day of the month
The reading of the first of the three sections is clear, it is the number 3, originally th l th, but now sh l sh, though it is the original Th sign representing it here, and so the evidence for long or short alphabet is ambiguous: but in this case the word yrh. (moon, month) assists us; its final consonant was etymologically H, but here it is H. to indicate the shorter consonantary.
A more recent sherd arrived in 2014, again from a temple: its inscription had been engraved into the jar before firing; it explains the purpose of the vessel, I think ("for measuring 5 hekat"):
This inscription is not proto-syllabic, though it might be neo-syllabic, but is probably neo-consonantal.
Note that I have constructed an untidy table of signs with three columns, one for each of the three vowels (u a i), and to the right of the -i column another three columns of later examples of the consonantal alphabet, showing that the -i syllabograms were usually the same as their consonantal counterparts (for example, DI = D, triangular like Delta). I was able to complete the Shu Sha Shi row with additional assistance from the Qubur Walayda bowl; that town is thought to have been a Philistian settlement, and the fact that the inscription has Baal and El names may indicate that the Philistian immigrants were Semitic, but other explanations are conceivable.
Some consideration should be given to this jar from Lakish, to determine its category in my fourfold scheme. The jar and its inscription are dated to the 12th Century BCE, so it was more recent than the new 15th-century sherd; and the text was inscised before the pot was fired, when the clay was "leather hard".
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 (see Figure 5).
Nobody else 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 D-syllabograms (DU and DA are rounded, like Roman D; and DI is triangular like Phoenician Dalet and Grecian Delta).
The first step is an examination of the interpretation given by the editors of the text; they accomplish this in a single paragraph, and my suspicions are immediately aroused. They have not established the writer's intention, and they can not make sense of this collection of meandering characters. Their sources for identifying letters and their Egyptian prototypes are Sass, Hamilton, Goldwasser, all unrelible guides in this matter, I have to say. They discern two lines of writing, each consisting of three letters; my first choice would be to say two groups of writing, an upper and a lower, but they note the presence of two more characters to the right of the top line, and another between the two lines; my second choice would be to envisage a single line of text circling from the top right corner to the bottom right, and possibly continuing upwards to complete a circle of letters, perhaps along a piece of the right-hand side that has been broken off, though not necessarily, as there seems to be a faded letter (a serpent?) filling the gap. Looking ahead to my ultimate decision, my third approach will be to accept two clusters of letters, separated by a dot, and read two words that make a statement.
Here we shall consider the editors' identifications of the signs: the letter in the bottom right corner is seen as a snake, hence N, and it corresponds to the Nun of the Phoenician alphabet, albeit in an anomalous reversed stance, though this form is more consistent with Greco-Roman N; they identify three more snakes in the marks between the upper and lower lines of script; if this is correct, then we are confronted with three different versions of Nun (snakes in various poses), and so the script being employed in this document could be the neo-syllabary, since that is how it works, generally speaking; however, none of the snake stances visible here (including the faded one that I have mentioned) matches the N-syllabograms in the later neo-syllabic texts; moreover, it seems to me at this juncture that none of these four (or five) candidates is a snake; the true N-serpent is a cobra lurking in the middle of the bottom line, I suggest.
Consider now the door-sign, top left; it is readily recognizable as the original Dalet ('door') and is accepted unquestionably by Misgav and his colleagues; but if their reference to Hamilton's pages on this subject are consulted, we are told that Albright had promoted the fish-sign as D (dag), though Cross and Hamilton accept both door and fish as alternatives (allographs) for D; actually others and myself see the fish (Semitic samk, which is frequent in the Sinai inscriptions, and in the Samek position on the Izbet Sartah abagadary) as an allograph of Samek (the spinal column, as on the Lakish dagger), though I wonder whether they represent exactly the same sound (s versus tsh?); incidentally, if a fish appears in an inscription it is a consonantal or neo-syllanic text, simce the fish was absent from the proto-syllabary.
Below the door is their elongated snake; I suggest this is a supine G (gamlu, throwstick), and that the dot, which makes it look like a snake with a head, is not part of the letter; it might be a doubling dot, or an unintentional blot.
Beside the door, is a rectangle, open at the bottom right corner; this is uunusual, having a rectangle with an open doorway for B (bayt, house), but it has a square-shaped analogy on the Gezer sherd (hand snake house, kn B, 'temple cult-stand', where the house-sign is a logogram for '[sacred] house', and the sherd is from such a 'cult-stand', for incense or offerings); the object was found at the Gezer high place.
Their three choices for their bottom line, naming the letters from right to left, are NPT, which could be a word for 'honey', as they point out; this idea certainly appeals to me, in this connection:
However, we must be suspicious about the first letter being N, and their identification of the second glyph as P is a desperate measure, and their quest for an Egyptian hieroglyphic prototype (corner, or a building tool) is fruitless; they do not even mention 'mouth', which is the real origin of the letter pe (see the PU on the Lahun heddle jack, above; and this character is a very twisted remnant of a human mouth, with the bottom lip curling the wrong way.
Finally, an obvious T (Taw); but it seems to have a long stem, and this suggests it is syllabic; we will now follow this clue.
My tentative tally is nine letters, and none of them appears more than once, it seems; this is more likely to occur if the script is a syllabary, which would have three times the number of characters as a consonantary. I am reminded of the daily puzzle in the local newspaper, in which nine letters are offered in a grid, and the task is to create as many words as possible; we could take that approach here and see if some of the words we find can be brought together as a coherent statement; but we still have the problem of identifying all the letters correctly, and deciding whether they are syllabic or consonantal. We have to consider the possibility that the scribe is deliberately teasing the readers, by using signs that could be syllabic and alphabetic, and challenging us to decide which are intended.
We begin again at the top right corner: the pair of snakes could just as well be seen as two horns on a bovine head, which could actually be complete as it stands, without invoking a missing piece of the sherd; it would represent 'Alep (the 'glottal stop' consonant); and we also have Bet (Beta), Gimel (Gamma), Dalet (Delta); this is starting to look like an abgadary, and we are thinking that a big part of this ostracon, displaying the rest of the alphabet, has been lost; but these same letters denote 'A, BA, GA, DA in the proto-syllabary; and likewise the Taw (a cross), but at present I am agonizing over its syllabic identity, whether TA or TU. If this assemblage of letters is merely an exercise, perhaps the scribe is practising the -a syllabograms; this idea would be supported by the editors' accepting the circular sign (top, centre) as an eye, hence `Ayin, representing alphabetic `(ayin), but also possibly syllabic `A(yin). However, the circle stands for the sun in the proto-syllabary, and represnts the syllable SHI (from shimshu) rather than SHA (from shad 'breast'); to make the sign clearer one or two serpents can be added to the sun, as seen on the Thebes proto-syllabic inscription (depicted several times above); the Sinai proto-consonantal inscriptions invariably have the serpents but not the sun-disc for Sh; but twice on the vertical section of the Wadi el-Hol proto-consonantal inscription, we find the sun with a single serpent:
While we have this very old inscription in our sights, we may note that it concerns a celebration for the goddess `Anat, whose name appears next to her image. We should also ask (as is now our habitual pracice) whether it is proto-consonantal or proto-syllabic. Running down the sequence of signs, I am surpised to see that each character could be consonantal or syllabic: water (M or MU), sun (Sh SHI), cross (T T-), head (R RA), jubilation (H HI), eye (` `A), snake (N NA), boomerang (G GA), ox-head (' 'A), and the last letter is obviously L, but this does not have a place in the syllabary. We have met LA (night) frequently, and LU (white of eye) on the heddle jack, and LI is a head-rest; so this text is not syllabic.
The acconpanying horizontal inscription describes the menu for the feast, including wine and sacrificial meat. The inscription runs from right to left (sinistrograde), beginning with RB WN, "plenty of wine".
The hank of thread for H is a clear indication that this text is proto-consonantal, since this character does not appear in the prior proto-syllabary or the subsequent neo-consonantary and its offshoot the neo-syllabary; of course it has a place in the cuneiform consonantary, which was modeled on the linear proto-consonantary (see the character of three vertical wedges on Figure 5 above). Even though the M and N are vertical on the horizontal line, and horozontal on the vertical line, the bovine head with the unique feature of a mouth would show the common authorship and unity of the two inscriptions; it is noticeable that neither example has a head-line between the horns, as also on our Lakish sherd, but this ox has an unusual angle for his horns, raising doubts that the letter is 'Alep/Alpha or syllabic 'A, and that the line on the left at least is a snake after all; but the analogy of the ox from the Egyptian desert tempts me to hold on to the Lakish bull by its misshapen horns. An additional feature pointing to the proto-consonantary is the vertical breast (No. 10, Th fron thad "breast"), with Sh (sun-disc and single serpent, No. 2 and 11 )on the vertical line of writing.
Contemplate that sun-sign, and then look closely at the circle on the Lakish sherd.
I have been wondering whether there is a faded line running from the bottom of the circle, making this letter equal in size with the B and D; if indeed there is (Eureka!) then the character says Sh or SHI, and not ` or `A.
The resultant Sh B sequence raises the possibility of "return" (originally ThWB) or "take captive" (ShBY). Here is a possible combination, involving seven of the letters:
'A SHI BA DA GA TA
"I catch fish"
This would be a sign upon his door, saying ""I am catching fish", equivalent to "Gone fishing, instead of just a-wishing".
Stop the press: there is a problem with the supposed sun-sign. As an analogy for fading of lines in letters we have the top of the adjacent B-sign; but there are a number of other faint lines on the sherd; for example, the diagonal stroke in the top left corner; and there are some marks in the top right corner. This was a milk bowl, and maybe these are stains from liquids it previously contained; or it is a palimpsest, and other writing has been washed off the surface, to make space for this inscription.
Most damaging for the sun-and-snake sign is an arc, actually a full semi-circle, running from the left side to the right edge, passthad "breast"ing through the door, the house, and under the eye, thereby vitiating the uraeus serpent of the sun, and ending below the ox-head, where it might have been interpreted as a NI syllabogram, like the tusks on the Tuba amulets (Figures 2 and 3).
Consequently my total is reduced to eight letters, and if the `Ayin is correct, it would support the editors' reading of their proposed top line as `BD; but rather than a noun "servant" (`bd), I would construct a verb, '`BD, "I serve", or "I till"; the utterance that emerges, with a slight rearrangement of letters in the bottom line, is not at all fishy but admirably horticultural:
'A `A BA DA GA NA TA
" I cultivate the garden"
As Voltaire's Candide would say, this is so necessary: il faut cultiver notre jardin.
This is a response that Adam (ha-'adam, the human) might have given to his commission to cultivate (`bd) and tend (sh-m-r) the garden (gan) of Eden (Genesis 2:15).
For NA I have called upon the character next to the cross-sign; I have already rejected it as p, the desperate measure taken by the editors; it is a cobra, in the pose that it has in the proto-syllabary, but not in the proto-consoantary; and this is my main reason for declaring this text to be syllabic, but it is tentative and fallible.
One letter remains to be identified, in the bottom right corner: the editors reasonably saw it as n, as this is the shape of N in the Phoenician alphabet; but it is reversed (back to front); the only example I know of this form is here, where I suggest that it represents NU in a neo-syllabic inscription:
In the proto-syllabary the closest letter to this is MA, from maggalu, "sickle". If we could read it on our sherd as a logogram, in some kind of "instrumental" case, it might say: "I cultivate the garden (with) a sickle". In response to this, I would raise two objections: sickles are for mowing meadows and reaping grains; sickles have short handles, and this feature is maintained on the MA characters displayed in the Byblos inscriptions, though the scribe who engraved the two examples of MA on the Megiddo ring did not restrain his stylus on this detail.
We encountered the word gannat (garden) on the Lakish five-sided sherd: the GA is much the same in both texts; the Taw (TA or TU?) is a cross, somewhat defective on the pentagon; there the NA snake has a head, with a doubling dot in it, hence GANNAT; the new sherd has a dot beside the GA and above the Taw, but this is distant from the NA. I will now propose that the two snake figures on our sherd, even though they are looking away from each other, represent double NA (running from right to left). Having said this, I was immediately struck by a another idea: the scribe is mixing the syllabic and consonantal systems; so as to achieve the goal of writing GANNAT, without having to include a "dead vowel", as was the case on the pentagon inscription, GA N(A) NA T (though the NANA was effected by a doubling dot in the head of the snake). Presumably the two snake signs, N and NA, were written back to back to alert the reader to interpret this sequence as N-NA. No doubt, this will be judged as a typical bizarre thought ejected from the Colless brain, but I dare to say that it first occurred to the mind of the Lakish scribe who wrote this with his brush and ink.
Is the statement a vow? "I will cultivate the garden".
There remains that dot or blob to the left of the GA: it must be a word separater; there are only two words, and that is where the division between them occurs; by the same token, the mark in the top right corner, above the 'A, indicates the starting point of the text; so it might be better to say that both markers indicate the beginning of a new word.
What conclusion can we possibly reach in the presence of this conflicting data?
Is it a consonatal inscription? If it is proto-consonantal, the graphemes for D and H (or the rarer G and Z.) are not there to indicate this identification.
Is it a syllabic text? The neo-syllabary can probably be excluded from the discussion, as it was a phenomenon of the early Iron Age (1200-1000), and this object is firmly dated around 1450 BCE. The D has no counterpart in the neo-syllabary, and likewise the B.
We seem to be driven to choosing between proto-syllabic or early alphabetic. Keeping in mind the fact that three quarters of the letters in the neo-consonantary are derived from the proto-syllabary, and one quarter of the syllabograms in the proto-syllabary are aslso found as consonantograms in the proto-alphabet,
CLASSIFICATION OF PUBLISHED INSCRIPTIONS
Christopher Rollston has compiled a 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)."
My fourfold classification of the evidence is as follows:
Tuba cylindrical amulets
Gubla inscriptions on copper and stone
Thebes syllabic tablet
Jamaica copper cup
Puerto Rico syllabic figurine
Norway silver mine inscription
Megiddo gold signet ring
Lakish pentagonal sherd
Lakish triangular sherd
Lakish rectangular sherd
Wadi el-Hol rock inscription
Sinai Turquoise mines inscriptions
Gezer cult-stand sherd
Puerto Rico abgadary
Lakish bowl sherd
Lakish jar sherd
Beth Shemesh Ostracon
Izbet Sarteh Ostracon
Qubur Walaydah Bowl
As a final free-will offering, here is another example of the many inscriptions people send me, and ask whether I can read it for them; I have not been told where it is from (so it is "unprovenanced") or what it is; I think it is a spearhead, rather than an arrowhead; it certainly looks like early West Semitic writing. Please understand that the photograph I am working on is better than this reproduction (at least the upper half is legible). We will endeavour to establish which of the four categories it belongs to, and find its meaning, and translate it into English.
Reading from the bottom (trusting that the entire inscription is there):
H.BT. (Late Hebrew, Jastrow, 417) "press (with force), force open".
The ending (inflexion) -u on the end of a word indicates the subject of a sentence (nominative case); -a shows the object (accusative case); -i is for the indirect object (genitive case); these are the three vowels that are found attached to consonants in the proto-syllabary and the neo-syllabary.