Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Solve an ancient abecedary mystery!

We live in a strange world, don't we? As expected, there are strange things that really defy explanation.

In 1976 an excavation of an ancient Israelite village uncovered written on a piece of pottery what is now called the 'Izbet Sartah abecedary (an abecedary is a list of the alphabet in order). The inscription was dated to 1200-1000 BCE and it looks like the above image.

Actually, only the bottom line is the abecedary. What is unusual about this (aside from its existence in and of itself!) is that it is written from left-to-right (that's an 'aleph all the way to the left, and the crossy looking thing at the right is the tav). That itself isn't so unusual in ancient writing. The ancient Greeks sometimes wrote using boustrophedon, which means that the text alternates in direction depending on the line.

For example you would start writing from left-to-right
enil txen eht ni tfel-ot-thgir eunitnoc dna
and then reverse on the next line, etc.

Of course that was how the early Greeks did it, but this is the only example of such Israelite writing.

More puzzles:

The zayin and hes are reversed, as are the 'ayin and peh. And then it seems to repeat kuf twice, while omitting resh. If written in modern Hebrew it would look like this: תשקקצעפסנמלכיטזחוהדגבא

Interestingly, the first four peraqim of Eicha are acrostics; each verse or group of verses begins with a letter of the aleph-bet and the chapter is 22 verses long. The second through fourths pereqs actually reverse the פ and the ע for no apparent reason (while the first doesn't). Perhaps taken with the 'Izbet Sartah abecedary we can postulate that the order of the alphabet simply wasn't fully stable until a later date. Of course that's not a very complete answer.

Another puzzle is that the first four lines above the abecedary are gibberish, or at least it seems like it thus far. Some have said that it may be a student's practice, the ordering may be simple error. But of course there's no evidence for that. Wanna solve an ancient mystery that has experts baffled? What's the deal?

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