National Geographic : 1933 Jul
SECRETS FROM SYRIAN HILLS Explorations Reveal World's Earliest Known Alphabet, Deciphered from Schoolboy Slates and Dic tionaries of 3,000 Years Ago BY CLAUDE F. A. SCHAEFFER AUTHOR or "A New ALPHABET OF THE ANCIENTS IS UNEARTHED," IN THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE With Illustrationsfrom Photographsby the Author GALL man's inventions, none has served him better than his alphabet. Long before the A B C's, as we know them, man could write and read after a fashion, using crude word signs and pic torial symbols. Several such systems are known, from Babylonia to YucatAn. However, so many years of hard work were needed to learn these ancient hiero glyphs that the art of writing and read ing, and the many sources of knowledge reached through it, could be enjoyed by only a few people, usually professional scribes who belonged mostly to the caste of priests. WHO INVENTED THE ALPHABET? In those days no king could publish a new law or send a diplomatic note, or a humble merchant even sign a simple con tract, without calling in a scribe to write the words. The power, then, which such scribes and letter-writing priests came to wield in public and private life was enor mous. How they used that power-and abused it-is recorded in the annals ef many oriental States of antiquity, before the days of the alphabet. The scribes and priests lost their special privilege when the alphabet came into use. Then writing and reading became so easy and simple, compared with deciphering the hieroglyphic and other ancient forms, that the public no longer had to depend upon the priests and other professional scribes. But who, you ask, actually invented the alphabet? And when? All evidence found so far shows that our A B C's were first used by the ancient cultural nations who dwelt around the east ern shores of the Mediterranean. Among these were the Phoenicians, and for a long time scholars insisted that they were the first to devise and use our alphabet. But to-day newly found Cretan hieroglyphs, the Sinai inscriptions, and other influences cause many modern historians to abandon the belief that the Phoenicians gave us the alphabet. Such was the situation when, in May of 1929, excavating at the ruined city of Ras Shamra, in northern Syria, I dug up some written slates of clay on which was used a new kind of cuneiform alphabet never before encountered. This information, sent to the Academy of Paris, aroused the scientific world.* In Egypt the scribes had to know many hundreds of word signs and symbols in order to write the hieroglyphic systems; at Babylon, or among the Sumerians, they also used many signs in cuneiform writing. But on the clay slates at Ras Shamra, its ancient inhabitants had found a simple way to write with only 28 letters! t These slates, according to the archeolog ical evidence I found with the assistance of my colleague, Georges Chenet, date from the 14th or 15th century B. C. On one old slate, in the current diplomatic language of Babylon, is a document which describes the boundaries between certain States near Ras Shamra. Similar in liter ary style to the diplomatic correspondence of the last Pharaohs of the I8th dynasty (between 1400 and 1360 B. C.), this Ras Shamra slate writing no doubt belongs to the same epoch. SECRET-SERVICE CODE SYSTEM HELPS DECIPHER CLAY SLATES When in 1821 the French scholar Cham pollion deciphered the Egyptian hiero glyphics, he had certain known word signs * See "A New Alphabet of the Ancients Is Unearthed," by Claude F. A. Schaeffer, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE for October, 1930. t First studies showed an alphabet of 27 letters, but further research has revealed an additional letter.