Chapter 7: THE ALPHABET AS AN ARTIFACT
It seems fair to say that most people look at the alphabet and see nothing in particular -certainly nothing exciting. It has always been there. Scholarly accounts of the history of the alphabet reflect dull and incurious eyes. Still, most would agree that the alphabet is the greatest of all inventions, and there ought to be excitement and adventure about it. With only several exceptions, we cannot ask the same questions about the alphabet as we did earlier about ancient writing in general. However, we can expect to learn something about widespread early travel and unexpected interaction between distant nations as we follow the quick spread of early forms of the alphabet. We also may learn something of early sophistication if we discover that the alphabet is older than generally thought, and we may even find relics in the alphabet hinting at catastrophes in the past. This seems to be expecting a great deal from a simple row of letters.
If we are to shed light on prehistory, or more properly, ancient history, the following questions will be important ones to pursue. The time of the origin of the alphabet is a vital question. Does the conventional account of the Phoenicians and the alphabet pretty much sum up the whole story? Does the development support an evolutionary view, or can we find evidence for early and unexpected sophistication in matters related to a writing system? If there is some great organizing principle for the manner in which the alphabet was drawn up, a number of peculiarities might be explained. Can we find any such organizing principles? It is crucial to attempt to learn where the symbols themselves came from. Are they familiar objects found in the ancient community? Are the symbols abstractions drawn from nature, or is there some other source? The order of the letters seems rather odd. Can we find any compelling reason for the manner in which they were arranged in ancient times? The fact that people are notably resistant to change has long been observed. Reforms of the alphabet seem to be unusually resistant to change despite the fact that such proposed reforms are often clearly superior and beneficial. If there something involved in the failures to accept reform which goes beyond typical resistance to change? There seem to be some indications that the alphabet was a more useful tool in the distant past than it now is. Is it possible to gain insights into the ancient world from this factor? The name of the inventor of the alphabet is given in some myths. Is it possible to identify the actual inventor, and if so, what light does this shed on ancient history for us?
When we look closely at the alphabet as an artifact, that is, as something shaped by human workmanship of historical interest, we can expect to find some clues to the nature of the ancient world which can help us fashion a more satisfactory framework for history.
Since there have been many, many modes of communication in the past, the question naturally arises as to whether these modes of expression can be placed into some kind of time sequence to show development from primitive and simple to modern and complex. Man has communicated by means of a thong with knots and its highly developed form, the quipus, the notched message stick, painted pebbles, beadwork or wampum, rock paintings and carvings, engraved and scratched bone and ivory, pictorial symbols, cuneiform writing on clay tablets, hieroglyphics painted or carved or pressed on various surfaces, drums, and smoke signals (Encyclopedia Britannica, llth ed., 28:852).
The use of the quipus was far more widespread than one might think, and its peculiar pattern of use around the world is an example of how one might infer something about ancient travel. The quipus consisted of a main cord to which at given distances thinner cords of different colors were fastened. Each cord was knotted in various ways for special purposes, each color having Its own significance. The Chinese have a tradition that the old fathers first used knotted cords to maintain the memory of events. Later they invented written characters which were then substituted for the knotted cords. The quipus was used along the west coast of Africa and in Egypt, in Australia, in China, and in the whole Pacific region from Melanesia to Formosa. It was also used in Scotland and in Germany, but its best known use was among the Incas in Peru. As a memory device it has never had an equal (Victoria Institute, 25:70; Wadler, 1948, p. 53-54). To assume that the quipus was a primitive step preceding the invention of writing is only conjecture. There is nothing primitive about the quipus, and its use was deliberate to keep sacred wisdom and privileged Information away from the wrong eyes and ears.
More than 2000 years ago the Greeks and Romans considered five different possible inventors of the alphabet - Phoenicians, Egyptians, Assyrians, Cretans, and Hebrews. Two millennia of further consideration have clouded the matter further. Every country in the eastern Mediterranean region has been nominated, Including Egypt, the cuneiform-writing countries of Sumer, Babylonia, and Assyria, Crete, the Hittites, Cyprus, and others. Others believe the Philistines brought the alphabet from Crete to Palestine, or that the alphabet was developed at Ugarit in Syria. The astonishing finds at Ebla in Syria since 1974 may influence further theoretical work on the origin of the alphabet. Most scholars simply assume an evolutionary model developing from prehistoric geometric symbols used throughout the ancient world (Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed., Macrop., 1:618).
For generations we have been lulled with the story that writing began with pictographs in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Much later the Phoenicians somehow came up with an alphabet which was very widely spread and copied. Yet contrary to popular and scholarly views and assumptions, there is good evidence that most of the alphabetic signs are older than hieroglyphs. The alphabet was not derived from hieroglyphs or pictograms (Moran, 1969, p. 4-11).
There are false trails in the study of origins. After enormous amounts of futile discussion, linguists conclude that their studies have yielded little or no evidence about the origin of human speech. Assumptions have not been supported. Long ago acrimony reached the point where La Societe de Linguistique de Paris made a standing rule that no papers on the subject may be presented at its sessions. Another vain effort has been the study of the speech of primitive peoples in order to shed light on the origin of speech. As far as we know there is no sign that any language spoken today has had a shorter history or a slower development than any other. Another lead has been the study of the speech of young children, but this too has yielded no significant results on origins. Hope springs eternal in the linguist's breast, however, and the focus now is on patterns of communication in the animal world in comparison with that of man (Sturtevant, 1947, p. 40).
It is certainly relevant to this discussion to note that no society is known at any point in history which did not have a fully developed language (Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed., Macrop., 19:1033). Neither in language nor in the alphabet are there any reasons to believe in any sequence of simple to complex as required by an evolutionary model. Certainly there has been much change, but not in a simple to complex sequence, and this is a very significant observation.
When we go back farther in time, we find the unexpected. In various cave sites in France and Spain, conventionally dated about 8,000-10,000 years ago, letters, writing, and symbols preliminary to a form of written script have been found.
M. Ed. Piette found at Mas d'Azil about 1896 a large number of pebbles in a stratum between the last Reindeer Age and the first Neolithic period, in the so-called Magdalenian Age. The layer was more than two feet thick of red and black color and with the pebbles were cinders, perforated deer teeth, harpoons, wheat, nuts and fruit seeds. The marks on the painted pebbles are not accidental. A great number closely resemble symbols of the alphabet. Nine agree with inscriptions found in Cyprus. Eleven correspond closely with Phoenician letters (Encyclopedia Britannica, llth ed., 28:853).
At Glozel another mystery was found. Among axes and pottery was found an incised tablet with signs and letters similar to Phoenician of Greek signs. Again the table was dated long before such writing is thought to have been developed (Berlitz, 1972, p. 170-171).
The mystery of writing deepens with a report from the Prehistoric Laboratory of Bordeaux University in 1972. An engraved beef bone found a Pech Laze, France, one of the earliest samples of written communication, was hailed as one of the greatest scientific discoveries of our time. The bone was dated as 135,000 years old (Ann Arbor News, 12/5/1972, p. 1). There is ample reason not to take such conjectural dating seriously, but the find nevertheless raises puzzling questions about the origin of writing.
Another complicating factor is the recent discovery in Bulgaria of baked clay disks or seals on which incisions are present. Scientists are agreed that the seals, dated no later than 4000 B. C., contain ideograms or pictographs. This is many centuries earlier than the oldest writing found in Sumer or Egypt. The situation is so chaotic that articles begin with the familiar refrain: "Until recently it was supposed that..." One can well understand that scholars are reluctant to have this aspect of civilization begin in Bulgaria and spread from there to Egypt and Mesopotamia (Victoria Institute, 99:2, p. 99).
All in all, it seems fair to say that some important ingredients seem
to be missing in the current attempts to explain the origin of modern writing.
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