Alphabet's ancestor discovered on desert rock

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The Independent Online
THE EARLIEST example of an inscription written in letters of the alphabet will be revealed today by archaeologists. The discovery of ancient alphabetic inscriptions etched on to limestone rock in the Egyptian desert pushes back the date of the invention of the alphabet by several centuries.

Researchers have dated the two inscriptions to between 1900BC and 1800BC, and have identified some of the symbols as precursors to letters in the modern alphabet, but have been unable to decipher their meaning.

The scientists, led by John Coleman Darnell, an Egyptologist at Yale University, will report the full details of their discovery at a meeting today of the Society of Biblical Literature in Boston.

The invention of the alphabet is considered to be one of the foremost innovations in civilisation and led to an explosion of literacy comparable with the development of the printing press 3,000 years later. Scholars originally thought the alphabet was developed around 1600BC by the Semitic- speaking people living in the area of present-day Palestine.

However, Dr Darnell's discovery, on the limestone rocks at the isolated Wadi-el-Hol, on the ancient road between Thebes and Abydos, has shown that the alphabet was invented in Egypt between two and three centuries earlier.

"The Egyptian society in which this alphabet developed was highly literate," remarked Dr Darnell. The Egyptians, however, used hundred of pictograms in their hieroglyphics which were cumbersome, time-consuming and took a lifetime to learn.

Dr Darnell believes that Semitic people, probably merchants, who lived among the Egyptians invented their own "shorthand" using letters of an alphabet they improvised from Egyptian symbols.

"An alphabet allows a people to enter a realm of literacy without having to learn a different language to do it. It allows basically for an explosion of writing," Dr Darnell said.

The researchers, aided by Chip Dobbs-Allsopp, an authority in America on the Semitic language, believe they have identified several symbols in the inscription that can be traced to modern letters, such as "L", "T", "R" and "M".

"We can see a direct development out of these earlier scripts into the Greek and later the Roman alphabet," Dr Darnell said.