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First Alphabet Found in Egypt Volume 53 Number 1, January/February 2000
by Elizabeth J. Himelfarb

Along an ancient road in Egypt's western desert at the Wadi el Hol (Gulch of Terror), Yale archaeologists John and Deborah Darnell have discovered two inscriptions representing the earliest-known phonetic alphabet. The script, which incorporates elements of earlier hieroglyphs and later Semitic characters, was carved into a natural limestone wall alongside hundreds of Egyptian inscriptions about 4,000 years ago.

Although a few glyphs look familiar to readers of semitic languages and ancient Egyptian, the alphabet has not yet been deciphered. "Within a couple seconds you realize it's pretty odd-looking," says John Darnell.

Experts agree the alphabetic entries were inscribed around 1800 B.C., the mid-range date of the Egyptian graffiti on the wall. The forms of the Egyptian characters in the alphabetic inscriptions offer evidence for the date the script was created. "Looking at the feet of the seated-human signs and the way the head is made point to around 2000 B.C.," says John Darnell. The water sign, usually horizontal, appears vertical. "The Egyptians only wrote that way in the early Middle Kingdom [the mid-twenty-second century B.C.], so the alphabet may have existed for two or three centuries before these inscriptions were made.

Nearby nineteenth-century B.C. inscriptions written inside the carving of a ship's sail refer to an Egyptian named Bebi who was "General of Asiatics," likely Semites. In the Middle Kingdom, Semitic mercenaries and brigands were conscripted into the Egyptian army. Bebi was probably the commander of a band of Bedouins who might have served a paramilitary function--road upkeep, border protection, or maintaining water depots. Tantalizingly, the text also mentions a "Scribe of the Asiatics."

John Darnell is quick to correct a leap made by other news media, which, in heralding the new discovery, called the phonetic alphabet a "hallmark of civilization." Although an alphabet is easy to learn, allowing the rapid spread of writing among people with no writing system, a phonetic/ideographic mix, like the hieroglyphic script, conveys more than a purely phonetic system, Darnell says. "In Egyptian they can express a great many things--there is a choice in spelling, you can add a pictorial level, writing in itself becomes decorative. An alphabet is less informative." The modern bias that phonetics are a higher evolution of ideographs has made scholars reluctant to look for the roots of phonetics in Egypt, John Darnell explains, since a phonetic alphabet was not used there until the Coptic period. The assumption was that if Egyptians had developed an alphabetic script, surely they would have used it. "In truth," he says, " it's an unnecessary thing in Egypt."

The Darnells have surveyed old caravan routes for seven seasons, camping in the desert where temperatures can reach 140° in the summer and become "almost frigidly cold" during the winter, John Darnell says. "I almost always wear long pants because of scorpions and things," he says. The pair have been trying to determine which were used by ancient Egyptians and racing to record the thousands of inscriptions at hundreds of sites.

"The inscriptions have been under attack by thieves who vandalize them in their free time," says John Darnell. Returning each year to find more writing erased has taken its toll on him. "I think I'll get to the point where I can't go back anymore," he says.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America