Alphabet’s Missing Link Discovered
An ostracon (piece of broken pottery with writing) discovered at Tel Lachish, has been hailed as the alphabet’s missing link by Austrian Archaeologist Dr. Felix Höflmayer. The discovery is being referred to as the alphabet’s missing link because until now a chronological gap existed between the earliest evidence for the alphabet and its appearance in ancient Canaan. The earliest form of alphabetic writing known comes from the Sinai (Serabit el-Khadim) and Egypt (Wadi el-Hol) and dates to the 19th century B.C. (see my article Oldest Hebrew Writing Discovered From Egypt?). Previous to this discovery at Lachish the oldest alphabetic writing in the Levant (the area which includes Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel) dated to the 13th century B.C. This discovery helps to close the chronological gap and demonstrates that writing existed in ancient Canaan earlier than previously thought.
Alphabet’s Missing Link: What Does It Say?
The ostracon contains a total of nine letters. Two words of three letters each appear, along with 3 miscellaneous letters. Reading from right to left, the first word, written diagonally in the upper left, contains the letters ʿayin (ע), bet (ב), and dalet (ד) which spells the Hebrew word ‘ebed meaning “slave.” Höflmayer suggests this may be part of a name since names containing these components are common in all Semitic languages (e.g., Ebed-Melech–Jer. 38:7ff.). The second word, at the bottom, reading right to left contains the letters, nun (נ), pe (פ), tav (ת) which spells the word “honey” or “nectar.” The two letters in the upper righthand corner and the letter between the two words are all the letter nun (נ). The significance of these letters is not known, although it appears there was more to the inscription than what appears on this potsherd. It needs to be noted that the words “slave” and “honey” are conjectural. During this period when the alphabet was being developed there was no standard direction for writing letters, so the letters might be read from left to right or right to left (sometimes they were even written vertically!).
Why Is a Small Piece of Pottery With 9 Letters On It So Significant?
For Bible believers, the discovery is significant because it shows that writing was possible and more widespread than previously thought. Some have argued that Moses couldn’t have composed the writings contained in the Torah because an alphabet hadn’t been invented yet. The alphabetic writings from Egypt, Sinai, and now Lachish, demonstrate that the alphabet not only existed during the time of Moses but was being used throughout the region the Bible locates the Israelites in.
The discovery is also significant because it can be precisely dated. Höflmayer writes, “The newly discovered inscription from Tel Lachish is currently the earliest securely dated example of early alphabetic writing in the Southern Levant.” Other examples of early writing exist, but either they were not found in a secure archaeological context, or it is disputed if the writing is alphabetic. One example of this, which also comes from Lachish, is the Lachish Dagger (photo can be found here). This dagger, discovered in 1934 at a tomb in Lachish contains what most scholars believe is four alphabetic symbols. This dagger dates to the late Middle Bronze Age (1650 B.C. – 1550 B.C.). Some, however, dispute that the symbols are alphabetic.
The discovery of this “missing link,” along with the dagger, and other writings, has some scholars believing that Lachish was an important center of writing. Höflmayer states, “Indeed, Lachish has yielded more examples of Late Bronze Age early alphabetic inscriptions than any other site.”
For more on the Biblical significance of this discovery see, Alphabet’s Missing Link Discovered in Canaan.
Höflmayer’s own account is available at Early alphabetic writing in the ancient Near East: the ‘missing link’ from Tel Lachish.
For more on the significance of Tel Lachish see my article Tel Lachish in the Toilet.