The Japan Times
December 1, 1999

Ancient graffiti may display oldest alphabet

LOS ANGELES (AP) Researchers have photographed what may be the earliest known alphabetical writing — graffiti carved by Semitic soldiers on an Egyptian cliff wall about 4,000 years ago.

Two inscriptions, which have not been deciphered may contain at least one man's name and perhaps a reference to God.

Bruce Zuckerman and Marilyn Lundberg, of the University of Southern California specialize in photographing ancient documents and inscriptions. They were enlisted to photograph the graffiti in June.

The pictures and researchers' interpretations were presented last week at a conference of the American Oriental Society.

Acts of minor vandalism in their time, the figures scrawled by Semitic soldiers around the 19th century B.C. appear to be proof that alphabetical writing is nearly 200 years older than originally believed, said Egyptologist John Coleman Darnell of Yale University.

The system of characters used is the ancestor of modern alphabets, including the English, Cyrillic, Hebrew, Arabic and Greek letters.

Alphabetical writing was revolutionary because it extended the ability to read to the common person. Alphabets use characters to represent single letters or sounds. Previous systems used hundreds of pictographs to represent words. Only scribes and rulers had time to memorize them.

"This is an important discovery filling in a blank at the beginning of the alphabet," said Frank Cross, an early alphabet expert at Harvard University. "Its simplicity is breathtaking, compared to the writing systems of the time."

Darnell discovered the inscriptions in the summer of 1998 while studying a gulch in southern Egypt that was once part of an ancient military road between Thebes to Abydos.

Previously, the earliest examples of the characters were found in Syria, Lebanon and Israel. Darnell's discovery may indicate that the alphabet was created in Egypt, not on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean.

The system is derived from Egyptian hieroglyphics, but shortened and streamlined.