Sunday, October 07, 2007



This inscription is on the wall inside the turquoise Mine L at Serabit el-Khadim on the Sinai Peninsula. A photograph is supplied together with my drawing, but other depictions of it are available on the internet (photograph; drawing). The letters are numbered on my sketch, for convenience in the discussion of the text. My drawing is not a perfectly accurate copy of what is there, but it shows what the letters are. The two instances of K (8 and 18) certainly represent upright hands with three or four fingers, but throughout this corpus of inscriptions K is often obscure. The T (3) is not discernible as a plain cross, leading to the suspicion that it could be K, but it is unlike the two examples of K (8, 18). The most mysterious letter in this text (17) is a triangle with two fins, in the horizontal line; but it cannot be a roughly executed fish, since there is a proficiently drawn fish (7) in the vertical column, and this scribe is an artist; identification of this character will be attempted when we reach that point in the text.

Readings of the message encoded by this sequence are many and varied. I myself have made a number of different translations, privately. Nevertheless, my starting point for my preferred interpretation is with signs 5 and 6: G (boomerang) and N (snake), forming the word gan, meaning 'garden', as in inscriptions 375 (defining the daily rations from the granary and the garden), and 353 (identifying the garden in front of Mine L, from which provisions could be taken).

In this study I will also draw on several shorter inscriptions to support my case (359, 383, 377, 386, 367).

The first six letters make this sequence: ' (ox) N (snake), T (cross), Sh (sun-serpent), G (boomerang), N (snake). As already stated, I propose to take GN as 'garden';. The combination 'NT (even though it could be the second person singular pronoun, 'anta) will be read as 'unutu, 'equipment' or 'vessels' (well attested in Akkadian, and also in Jewish Aramaic); it also appears at the start of inscription 349, which includes (line 3) a word `rk, 'apparatus', and this supports 'NT as 'equipment'. The Sh could be the possessive particle (as seen in Akkadian, Phoenician, and Hebrew), relating 'NT to GN hence: "The garden equipment". In the light of what we learn further down, the term 'vessels' would be appropriate.

Since I am taking an irrigation line of interpretation, I propose that the next combination, S (fish) and K (hand), is the imperative mood (SK) of the verb n-s-k, 'pour'. But the extreme ambiguity of the text can be illustrated by this possibility: 'NT ShGN SK, "You, Shagan, pour!".

Another way to divide the words, by adding the M (9), would produce the word NSKM, 'pourers', used for 'metalsmiths', as pourers of molten metal. We have already noticed that there was a melting furnace (KBShN MSh) as well as a garden near the entrance to this cavern, Mine L (S353). Accordingly, we could read it as saying:

'NT Sh GN (N)SKM:"Equipment of the garden of the metalsmiths".
I do not exclude this possibility, but my overall understanding of this text is that it gives instructions for watering the garden, and the imperative SK, "Pour!" suits this line of reasoning better. Note that we have already seen (S353) cases where a single letter functions for the final and initial sounds of two adjacent words (MHB`LT for MHB B`LT, 'beloved of Ba`alat', for example).

The M (9), the wavy water sign, could be the word for water, namely mu, or else it stands for the word mayim, 'water', and is thus a logogram (a sign standing for a whole word, not simply for a sound). This inscription has at least one logogram: the `ayin (21), an eye, will be understood as representing the word `ayin, meaning 'eye', but also 'spring'. Whichever way we look at it, the M represents 'water', and SK M could say: 'Pour water'. Another complication and seeming contradiction should be mentioned: the sequence ML (9, 10) occurring here ("water from") and below (16,17) will be understood there as the verb meaning "fill".

L'B (10-12) could be analysed as l, 'to' or 'for', and 'ab, 'the father'. Incidentally, the preposition l can also say 'from' as well as 'to'!

BMLK (15-18) could yield 'the house of the king', with B as a logogram for house (byt), and MLK the word for 'king' (malk).

Our attempts to make sense of the signs in this column demonstrate the ambiguity we face: even when the letters are legible and their identifications are known with certainty, the possible meanings are many. Of course, the main difficulty is that the inscribers never separate the words.

However, we do find a separated word here: DhT (13-14) 'this' (feminine singular). It has been added in small print to the right of the first B (12). It has been ignored and even rejected by scholars, but it is fairly visible on the photograph provided above. I think it applies to the word 'B, showing that it is not masculine 'father', nor 'fruit', nor 'ghost', but a word of feminine gender. The remaining possibility that I see is 'skin-bag' or 'water-bottle'; this object was made from a goat skin turned inside out. Because the word is not well attested, its gender is not certain, but I would guess that its womb-like nature, as a container of liquids (water and wine), would make it feminine. Unfortunately, this attractive argument receives no support from the fact that the Semitic word for 'womb' (r-hh-m) is masculine gender!

These skin bags could also be used as bellows, filled with air, and the smiths on this site would have employed them for this purpose as they worked at their furnaces. Remember, we have already encountered two words for 'furnace': KBShN (S353); and KR, in the expression BN KR, 'son of the furnace', applied to 'Asa on the inscribed sphinx (S345).

Another inscription can be brought into the discussion at this point.

Semitic inscription 359 belongs to the same mining area, but its precise provenance is not known. Its letters are clear: ' (ox) B (house) M (water). I suggest that it says 'water-bag': 'b 'skin bag', qualified by m 'water'. It could conceivably mark the spot where a water bag was placed, so everyone knew where it could be found; and it might even be indicating the very skin bag ('this bag') mentioned in the inscription in Mine L. Presumably bottles of water would be kept inside, away from the heat of the sun and the furnaces.

In the interpretation I am proposing, the text begins with the defining statement "The garden vessels". One of these vessels was a water-bag, apparently, and another was a jug, I will now demonstrate. Note that a piece of a large pot was found in Mine L.

Looking at letters 18 and 19 (separated by imperfections in the rock surface), I would make a case for the hand as K, of course, and the triangular sign as D, forming the common West Semitic word kad, meaning 'jug, pitcher'. Remember that the Greek D (Delta by name, coming from Semitic dalt, 'door') is a triangle. We may not be able to draw a direct line from this Sinai sign to Delta, but long ago someone suggested that if Delta was derived from a picture of a door, it must have been a tent-door. Be that as it may, the idea certainly made me think that we have a tent-flap depicted here. It has two projections, like 'fins', though it is probably not a fish; see letter 7; but if it is a graphic variant of a fish sign, and hence S, then the word would be KS, 'cup', or even 'bowl'; still, they could be the threads that attached it to the tent. Let us not forget that these men lived in tents (see S365, Sinai camp site).

So we have a water-bag and a jug as the garden vessels. And the inscription gives directions on their use, if the letters are divided up thus:

"Pour (SK) water (M) from (L) this (DhT) bag ('B) in (B) filling (ML) the jug (KD) with water (M)"

This looks very simplistic, but the writer is emphasizing that a jug must be used for careful pouring when irrigating the vegetables in the garden, by drip-feeding, not spraying straight from the water-bag; water was precious.

For comparison, we might refer to the time of a great drought in ancient Israel (9th century BCE) when Ahab and Jezebel ruled the land (1 Kings 18 in the Bible). The prophet Elijah (Eliyahu, 'Yahweh is my God') summoned the prophets of Ba`al to Mount Carmel, for a rain-making contest. Ba`al, the weather-god, had failed to send rain; now Yahweh would prove his superiority by breaking the drought. At one point in the proceedings Eliyahu gives an order:

"Fill four pitchers with water"
ml'w (fill) 'rb` (four) kdym (jugs) mym (water).

Notice that there is no helping preposition 'with', as needed in English; it is simply "fill jugs water", as in our inscription, ML (fill) KD (jug) M (water).

By coincidence the letters in the word for 'four' also occur at the end of the line (25-28): '(ox) R (head) B (house) ` (eye). And it is possible that it means 'four jugfuls' of water are to be used. However, I will propose another understanding of the letters when we reach that point.

In my view, the words following the word 'water' (M, 20) name the sources of the water. The M could have a double function: 'water' and 'from'.

In this regard, notice the possibility that dm` 'm could say 'the tears of the mother'; and if the D could be used as the final consonant in kd (jug) and the initial in dm` (tears), then we have: "filling the jug with tears of the Mother (Goddess)". This could mean rainwater, or more suitably water from springs, since the divine Mother is identified with the earth, and father gods are in the sky ("Our Father who art in Heaven"). However, while dm` is the verb meaning 'weep', the noun 'tears' is feminine and has a -t ending, and there is no T in sight.

However, I propose that the same meaning can be obtained by understanding the `ayin as a logogram for 'eye' or 'spring' (the word can mean both, for obvious reasons). Hence M ` 'M could be saying: "water from the spring of the Mother".

I think we can identify and locate this spring. At some distance from these mines is a well known as Bir Nasb, which must have been the main water source for the expeditions. On the rock face above it are two inscriptions: one is the record of Asa's sickness (376); the other (377) consists of three proto-alphabetic signs and some other marks.

The letters are in a bunch: ' (ox) ` (eye) M (water). We have learned by now that these Sinai inscribers do not always put their letters in straight lines and in order, though S357 (the one we are studying) is very tidy in this respect. Examples we know are 345, 358, and 365; and a fine instance is found on the side of the statuette 346 (which we have not studied yet). There the letters R Ss B are above B N N, but everyone recognizes (though most erroneously read Q instead of Ss) that the sequence order is RBNSsBN, because that is how it appears on inscription 349, running along a straight line.

Similarly, since the letters we see above the Bir Nasb spring are in the order 'ayin `alep M on the horizontal line of inscription 357, and since they produce a very apt name for that well, we may accept the same order for 377. Hence, by one of the principles we have established for interpreting proto-alphabetic texts (the letters could function as logograms and polysyllabograms) the brief text 377 says: "Spring of the Mother (Goddess)". If the mark below the M (on the photograph) is the Egyptian hieroglyph B1, a seated woman, the determinative marker for female, then we have a strong case. (If the female figure has horns and sun-disk on her head, hieroglyph C9, then this indicates that the goddess is Hat-Hor, or her Semitic equivalent.)

There is another stone slab from the interior of Mine L. It is numbered 386, and it has one sign: `ayin.

Again we may read it as a logogram: "spring". It is possible that it marked the site of a spring inside the mine, but more probably it showed the spot where spring-water was stored.

The remaining letters of inscription 357 are recognized by everyone:
24R 25' 26R 27B 28` 29L
And though the final L is not certain (but see this drawing by I. Beit-Arieh), we seem to be in the presence of the god Ba`al. The combination 'r b`l could mean 'the light of Ba`al', but we are looking for irrigation from Ba`al, not illumination.

There are several possibilities. Borrowing the final M from 'm (mother) we have mr, 'a drop' (as in Isaiah 40:15, "a drop from a bucket"), which suggests drip-feeding of the plants, with the following 'four' ('rb`) indicating the strict rationing of the water! Then we could try r'r, 'outpouring' of Ba`al (if r'r can be connected with ryr, 'discharge', though the noun means 'spit'). A noun rb(b) is attested in Ugaritic, meaning drizzle or perhaps heavy dew, here possibly 'showers of Ba`al'. There is a root rwy, 'to water' (plants), with an Arabic noun riyy, 'watering, irrigation', and this would fit admirably here. The 'alep, taken on its own as a separate word, could be the conjunction 'or' ('u).

Putting the best choices together:
"watering (r) or (') showers (rb) of Ba`al".

Rain-water was stored on the site, apparently. There was a pond near the temple. A stone-enclosure south of Mine L had this large slab with a small inscribed stela on it (367).

The stone looks as if it has suffered water damage, but in the lower part we can see B (house) ` (eye) and L (crook), the god Ba`al. In the top section we seem to have G (boomerang, throw-stick, without blades, unlike the G (5) on inscription 357 in Mine L, see above) then B (square house). This combination, gb, can cover various Semitic words meaning cavity for collecting water, cistern, reservoir.

Between the two suggested words, GB and B`L, are two lines (not shown on my drawing, see the photograph). These could be the character Dh, 'this', and function as a qualifying conjunction: "Reservoir, the one of Ba`al".

However, the presumed B seems to have two eyes in it, suggesting that a human head is intended, hence R. Moreover, to the right of the eye is a possible B (see the photograph).

Accordingly, we could read:

GB Dh RB (B)`L "Reservoir of showers of Ba`al".

Thus the assumed RB (B)`L on inscription 357 (26-29) is also present here.

The horticultural interpretation of inscription 357 runs thus:

"Garden vessels ('nt sh gn): pour (sk) water (M) from (l) this (dh-t) bag ('b) in (b) filling (ml) the jug (kd) with water of the spring of the Mother (m `ayin 'm), drops (mr) [or: irrigation water (m r)], or (') showers of Ba`al (rb[b]`l)."

As they appear in this solution, the instructions are not clear; but the gist is that the garden vessels were a water-bag and a jug; and the sources of water were the distant spring of the Mother Goddess (Bir Nasb) and the nearby reservoir of Ba`al where rain-water was stored.

A final word in defence of my interpretations, presented here again in a new form (see Colless 1990). They have been ridiculed (the term 'bizarre' has been used in French and English!). What I have done here and in the other essays in this series is to bring together the things that belong together, so that they can aid our understanding of the pieces in their full context. Examples of what others have done with this inscription (357), examining it in relative isolation (so to speak), can be found in the article of Emile Puech (2002).

Of course, our concomitant aim is to recognize all the letters of the proto-alphabet as we go, and to establish the principles by which they were employed (logographic usage, for example).

In this text, and the inscriptions connected with it, we received additional confirmation that the boomerang is G (not P, 'corner'), and that it can be a right angle as well as an obtuse angle. The hand is K, whether it has four fingers or three (not Ss). The fish is not D but S (which has an 'allograph', a spinal column, in some places, but not in the Sinai inscriptions); the door is D, and here we saw a graphic variant (rather than an alternative, an 'allograph'), in a tent-door (19), not the usual house-door (inscriptions 376, 365B, and 367 above); it is not the sign for Sh, as is commonly assumed. The sign that slightly resembles a bow (here 4) is actually a stylized version of the sun with its serpent (sometimes with the sun-disc present, but usually absent), and it is not Th but Sh (shimsh, 'sun'); Th is a breast-sign (thad, 'breast', inscription 375, twice).

Brian E. Colless, The proto-alphabetic inscriptions of Sinai, Abr-Nahrain/Ancient Near Eastern Studies 28 (1990) 1-52
Gordon J. Hamilton, The Origins of the West Semitic Alphabet in Egyptian Scripts (2006)
Emile Puech, Notes sur quatres inscriptions protosinaïtiques, Revue Biblique 109 (2002) 5-39
Benjamin Sass, The Genesis of the Alphabet (1988)

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