We’re marking the days to the holiday of Shavuot, the festival of weeks, and the time when we traditionally celebrate the giving of the Torah – Pentateuch – on Mt. Sinai. Jews have long been known as the “people of the book” and the written word is very important in Jewish culture. Before the holiday, we count 49 days of the barley harvest. A recent discovery has coupled barley and writing to fill in a gap in the development of language and the arrival of alphabetic language in the land of Israel.
At the beginning of language there were hieroglyphs – symbols representing whole words. The most developed system of hieroglyphs from the ancient world was in Egypt. Tombs, stellae, and ostraca bear the unique symbols of this language. But Egyptian hieroglyphics were not the only representational language. In Mesopotamia, early cuneiform texts, written by pressing a reed stylist into clay tablets, also started as pictographs. Cuneiform script looks less like pictographs, but nonetheless, each character represented an entire word.
The city-states of Canaan between these two superpowers had their own language but not a system of writing. These populations served as a base for workers for the major empires and one group of workers, working in a mine in Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai peninsula in the 18th-17th century BCE, adopted Egyptian hieroglyphs and made them alphabetic, with symbols representing sounds and not words, in order to express their Canaanite language. It’s amazing to think that a group of simple miners, in their desire to communicate and please the gods, created the basis of language which would morph into Hebrew, Phoenician, Greek, and eventually Latin letters that are used until this day.
How did alphabetic writing pass into common usage in Canaan? This has been a question asked by researchers. Many alphabetic writings have been found in Israel but until recently, even the earliest reliably dated example has been dated to the 13th century BCE. New research by the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Tel Lachish have positively identified an example of use of alphabetic letters dating to the 15th century BCE and provides an important link between the first usage in Sinai of this type of writing and the proliferation of known texts in Israel from the Late Bronze Age.
In the corner of a building, part of a fortification system, excavated in the 2018 season by the Austrians at Tel Lachish, a small ostraca was found with 2 lines of text. The careful stratigraphy employed placed it in a layer along with some barley seeds. The seeds underwent radiocarbon dating identifying the layer, and the ostraca, to 1500-1425 BCE. This is the oldest reliable dating for alphabetic writing in Canaan and fills in the gap between the miners and the later use of an alphabet. Some of the letters in the inscription show considerable development from the 18th century BCE Serabit el-Khadim inscription further filling in the history of language.
A suggestion has been offered that the Hyksos domination over the Nile Delta possibly was a catalyst to spread the alphabetic writing from Egypt to the Southern Levant, although it is unclear what connection Egypt had with the Canaanite city-states during the Hyksos rule. Other findings in Lachish continue the chain of alphabetic writing with 4 other datable finds from the Late Bronze/ Age found there: a 14th century BCE bowl, a 13th century BCE ewer, and a 12th century BCE bowl fragment and pottery sherd. Lachish remained an important link in the proliferation of this new idea – the alphabet.
There are many reasons to visit Tel Lachish, from its massive Judean governor’s mansion, to the impressive gate complex, from the site of the important 6th century BCE Lachish letters, or even to its ancient toilet. Now you have another reason to visit this site – to celebrate the link between the land of Israel and the development of language and the alphabet.