Friday, June 29, 2018


Inscription on a limestone
ostracon. Tomb of Sennifer,
Egypt. Photo
Public domain.

The oldest known inscription in an early version of our alphabet (well almost) is an ostracon, an inscribed piece of limestone discovered in 1995 in Egypt, in the tomb of Sennefer (or Senneferi). The text is actually written in hieratic, a form of Egyptian hieroglyphs, but the words are of foreign (not Egyptian) linguistic origin, and appear to be mostly Semitic.(Jarus 2018) The earliest forerunner to our alphabet was written in Semitic language scripts. This inscription has recently been analyzed and deciphered, and is thought to represent an abecedary. 

"An abecedarium (or abecedary) is an inscription consisting of the letters of an alphabet, almost always listed in order. Typically, abecedaria (or abecedaries) are practice exercises." (Wikipedia)

Painted mural, Tomb of Sennefer,
Luxor, Egypt. Public domain.

Writing in the Times of Israel (22 May 2018),  Amanda Borschel-Dan recorded that the record was painted upon a limestone flake, and was recovered from the tomb of Sennefer at Luxor. "Newly deciphered Egyptian symbols on a 3,400-year-old ostracon from Luxor's Tomb of Senneferi appears to be the first written evidence of the ABC letter order of the early Semitic alphabet, according to a University of British Columbia Egyptologist. In his article, "A Double Abecedary? Halaham and 'Abgad on the TT99 Ostracon," Prof. Thomas Schneider concludes that a small (approximately 10 x 10 centimeters, or about 4 x 4 inches) double-sided limestone flake was used by Egyptian scribes as a mneumonic device to remember the letter orders of not one, but two forms of early Semitic alphabets." (Borschel-Dan 2018)
"Three of the words start with the ancient equivalent of B, C and D, creating what may be a mnemonic phrase. Thomas Schneider, a professor of Egyptology and Near Eastern Studies at the University of British Columbia, reported the discovery in a paper published recently in the Bulletin of American Schools of Oriental Research. This discovery "would be the first historical attestation of 'our' alphabet sequence," he told Live Science in an email." (Jarus 2018) 
"One side of the limestone piece contains a series of Egyptian hieroglyphic symbols that represent the words "bibiya-ta" (a word that can mean "earth snail"), "garu" (a word that can mean "dove") and "da'at" (a word that can mean "kite"), Schneider wrote in his paper. More than 3,000 years ago , the "g" would have represented the sound that "c" does today, Schneider told Live Science. This means that the first letter of each of these words is the ancient equivalent of "BCD."  (Jarus 2018)
"The other side of the inscribed piece of limestone also contains a series of Semitic words written in hieratic Schneider said. The first letters of the first four words in that series - the letters "hlhm" - represent the first few letters of another ancient alphabetic sequence, one that never became as popular as the ancient forerunner of our alphabet. These words form a phrase that means, "to make pleasant the one who bends reed, water [according] to the Qab." The "qab" is a unit of measurement that equals about 1.2 liters, Schneider wrote. This phrase likely helped the person who wrote this inscription to remember the first few letters of this alphabetic sequence, Schneider said." (Jarus 2018)
"Whoever wrote these inscriptions 3,400 years ago may have been trying to remember the start of both alphabetic sequences, Schneider said. Sennefer(i) was an official who dealt with Egyptian foreign affairs and likely understood the Semitic languages that were used in the Eastern Mediterranean, Schneider said." (Jarus 2018) So, these inscriptions were not written in our alphabet, but in Egyptian hieratic, and were not written in our language, but in the ancient Semitic language. This  ancient Semitic language was generally written by the Semites themselves in a version of the Phoenician script that later evolved into our alphabet. Even if the connection to us is a little tenuous, a written inscription of that age deserves attention.
NOTE: Some images in this posting were retrieved from the internet with a search for public domain photographs. If any of these images are not intended to be public domain, I apologize, and will happily provide the picture credits if the owner will contact me with them. For further information on these reports you should read the originals at the sites listed below.


Borschel-Dan, Amanda
2018 Aleph is for 'Elta: First Written Record of Semitic Alphabet, From 15th Century BCE, Found in Egypt, 22 May 2018, Times of Israel,

Jarus, Owen
2018 Earliest Version of our Alphabet Possibly Discovered, Live Science, May 16,

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