Posts Tagged ‘ancient writing’

Bronze head of a king, thought to be Sargon of Akkad. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Bronze head of a king, thought to be Sargon of Akkad. Via Wikimedia Commons.

I was going to write a very brief blog entry about Enheduanna, an ancient Sumerian priestess thought to be the first named author in history. I thought it was interesting that that honor fell to a woman. But as often happens, I kind of plunged down a rabbit-hole when I started to try to pin down some of the details.

Enheduanna was the name of an Akkadian priestess of the moon-god Nanna and daughter of the king known as Sargon of Akkad. I came across Enheduanna in “The Rhetoric of Origins and the Other: Reading the Ancient Figure of Enheduanna,” a chapter by Roberta Binkley in the book Rhetoric Before and Beyond the Greeks. Binkley is lecturer in rhetoric at Arizona State University (see an essay by her about Enheduanna here).

(Here at this website and blog I’m focusing on my historical-fiction writing project, The Cursed Ground. However, under another pen name I write non-fiction, thus the interest in rhetoric.)

Binkley’s chapter is fascinating for all kinds of reasons, but I was struck by her statement that Enheduanna is “the first named historical author.” (47) Enheduanna “lived and wrote around 2300 B.C.E.,” says Binkley, “almost two thousand years before the “golden age” of Greece. (48) I found that tidbit fascinating, that the earliest-known named writer was a woman. Beyond that, I was eager to read Binkley and the other authors who contributed chapters to the book, just because they challenge the received wisdom that rhetoric started in fifth- or fourth-century Athens.

To be frank, though, I got a little stuck on Binkley’s dating of Enheduanna at “around 2300 B.C.E.” The Wikipedia entry on Enheduanna places her a few years later, at 2285-2250 BCE. It seemed to me doubtful that the lifetime of someone living so long ago could be known so definitely that it could be placed within a 50-year range like that. How can they be so certain?

I get a little cranky when experts act too certain about events of the past and their dates — see my blog entry “How Much Do We Really Know About Human History?” An expert in one field generally only has time to thoroughly investigate his or her own narrow specialty enough to feel justified in making strong assertions. When it comes to placing their findings within the larger historical context, they tend to just go with whatever is asserted by other experts. This seems to go on frequently in academia, with the result that multitudes of specialists end up relying on other specialists, and they all kind of cooperate to construct this vast chronological model of the human past, everybody trusting the soundness of the others’ scholarship.

Most of it is valuable work and worth consulting, but is the great hypothetical model of the past so certain that the everyday thinking person should just accept it all on faith?

Enheduanna is believed to have been the daughter of Sargon of Akkad, a.k.a, Sargon the Great. He used to be known as Sargon I, but then researchers found out about an even earlier Sargon, who now gets that designation. Some think that “Sargon” might really be more of a title than a proper name. Anyway, out of my interest in Enheduanna and her lifetime, I learned that Sargon of Akkad’s lifetime is actually somewhat uncertain. In the information box in his Wikipedia entry, his dates are listed as c. 2334-2279 BCE. (For this entry, I’m relying quite a bit on Wikipedia — maybe I’ll jump further down this rabbit-hole in the future, but I expect Wikipedia can be trusted as accurate for something like this.)

However, if you read the detailed discussion of Sargon’s origins and rise to power, you’ll see that the 2334-2279 range is based on what’s called the “Middle Chronology.” Meaning there are other chronologies. In fact, the Sargon article also mentions a “short chronology,” which dates Sargon later, at 2270-2215. I thought that was interesting to see two chronologies mentioned for the early period in Sumerian history, and that idea of multiple chronologies sounded familiar. I thought I had run into it before, so I went a little deeper.

In fact, consulting the article on “Chronology of the Ancient Near East,” what I found is that there are what the article editors call “competing proposals” for the chronology of the second and third millennia BCE. Here is an interesting table borrowed from the article under the section “Variant Bronze Age chronologies“:

Chronology Ammisaduqa Year 8 Reign of Hammurabi Fall of Babylon I ±
Ultra-Low 1542 BC 1696 BC – 1654 BC 1499 BC +32 a
Short or Low 1574 BC 1728 BC – 1686 BC 1531 BC ±0 a
Middle 1638 BC 1792 BC – 1750 BC 1595 BC −64 a
Long or High 1694 BC 1848 BC – 1806 BC 1651 BC −120 a

The various versions of the chronology depend greatly on the interpretation of astronomical records recovered from cuneiform tablets, particularly the Ammisaduqa tablet recording observations of the planet Venus. As you can see here, the reckoning of a key date can vary as much as 150 years, depending on which chronology you follow. The editor says that the Middle Chronology “has strong academic supporters” and that the High and Ultra-Low chronologies “are minority views,” which is probably why the Middle Chronology is the one that has prevailed in the discussions of Sargon and thus Enheduanna. However, that’s not to say that the Ultra-Low Chronology should be completely discounted. In fact, if I understand correctly, the Ultra-Low Chronology would place Enheduanna closer to 2200 BCE rather than 2300 BCE.

Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Yet, I wonder whether there are Akkadian scholars who would scoff at the 2200 date and insist that 2300 is the “right” one — see “The Way Things Are, the Way Things Were, and What Is True.”

But I digress.

Here’s another wrinkle: The Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa, the cuneiform document so important to establishing anchor dates in the ancient Near East chronologies, is not universally loved. In fact, digging down further and consulting the Wikipedia article on that document, we learn that this tablet supposedly records the movements of Venus for a mere period of 21 years during the reign of a King Ammisaduqa, a successor of Hammurabi. However, the earliest extant copies of this tablet are dated between 720 and 704 BCE. You can see from the table above that this tablet is used to fix events that supposedly occurred about 900 years earlier than its writing. Maybe the copyists did their work properly during all that long period of time, but maybe not.

In fact, V.G.Gurzadyan casts doubt on the validity of the Venus tablet altogether, as seen in this abstract from his article “On the Astronomical Records and Babylonian Chronology“:

We outline the priority of high quality data of astronomical content as our strategy for the analysis of the ancient astronomical records in the search of the absolute chronology of the Near East in II millennium BC. … We then discuss why the 56/64 year Venus cycle cannot be traced in the Venus Tablet and therefore cannot serve as an anchor for the search of chronologies. … In sum the available data support the Ultra-Low Chronology proposed in the book by H.Gasche, J.A.Armstrong, S.W.Cole and V.G.Gurzadyan, “Dating the Fall of Babylon” (1998) and, particularly, leave no astronomical background for the High Chronology. Ultra-Low Chronology is supported also by archaeological, dendrochronological, Assyrian king lists and other data as summarized at the Intern. Colloquium on Ancient Near Eastern Chronology (Ghent, July, 2000).

Oops, that’s a least one scholar who prefers the Ultra-Low Chronology.

And another wrinkle on top of the other wrinkles. The editors of the “Chronology of the Ancient Near East” article in Wikipedia also add this little tantalizing tidbit:

The chronologies of Mesopotamia, the Levant and Anatolia depend significantly on the chronology of Ancient Egypt. To the extent that there are problems in the Egyptian chronology, these issues will be inherited in chronologies based on synchronisms with Ancient Egypt.

If you want to learn something about the problems with the Egyptian chronology, I refer you again to my article “How Much Do We Really Know About Human History?

So what’s the lesson here for the average person interested in the ancient world? Maybe the lesson is that we have to be careful when supposed experts tell us they “know” what took place thousands of years ago, and when it took place. This is especially so for those who are interested in Bible history and who know the chronology set forth in that reliable set of documents. The work of historians and archaeologists and philologists and linguists — and, yes, professors of rhetoric — is immensely valuable in helping us understand the past. But beware when someone claims to have the last word about what happened in the human past.

ARK — 1 November 2014







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Al Bredenberg makes an interesting connection between the work of a great linguist and the value of collaboration:

Michael Ventris, the Decipherment of Linear B, and the Value of Cross-Fertilization Reading Andrew Robinson’s fascinating book Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World’s Undeciphered Scripts (2002, McGraw-Hill), I recently learned the amazing story of the decipherment of the Linear B script by amateur philologist Michael Ventris in the 1950s. The story brings home some important lessons about innovation: Be willing and eager to collaborate Take advantage of cross-fertilization by bringing in perspectives and skills from diverse d … Read More

via A Thinking Person

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An inscription on a pottery fragment recently deciphered at the University of Haifa in Israel shows that Hebrew was in use during the 10th century BCE, much earlier than generally acknowledged by mainstream scholars.

An announcement from the University of Haifa (see “Most ancient Hebrew inscription deciphered“) says the inscription appears on a pottery shard 15 cm x 16.5 cm and was deciphered by Prof. Gershon Galil of the university’s Department of Biblical Studies. Galil has demonstrated that the inscription is Hebrew. Radioactive dating placed the fragment during the 10th century BCE, making this the oldest known example of Hebrew writing.

The writing’s distinctive use of verbs and particular content show it to be attributable to Hebrew and not to other cultures of the area at that time. Galil is quoted as saying,

This text is a social statement, relating to slaves, widows and orphans. It uses verbs that were characteristic of Hebrew, such as asah (“did”) and avad (“worked”), which were rarely used in other regional languages. Particular words that appear in the text, such as almanah (“widow”) are specific to Hebrew and are written differently in other local languages.

The content itself was also unfamiliar to all the cultures in the region besides the Hebrew society: The present inscription provides social elements similar to those found in the biblical prophecies and very different from prophecies written by other cultures postulating glorification of the gods and taking care of their physical needs.

Galil says this finding argues against the mainstream view that the Bible was written during a later period and that the kingdom of Israel didn’t exist that early.

Galil adds that

It can now be maintained that it was highly reasonable that during the 10th century BCE, during the reign of King David, there were scribes in Israel who were able to write literary texts and complex historiographies such as the books of Judges and Samuel.

Although the content does not appear to copy or quote from the Bible, the university says it is similar in content to such scriptures as Isa. 1:17, Ps. 72:3, and Ex. 23:3.

Translated into English, the text reads:

1′ you shall not do [it], but worship the [Lord].

2′ Judge the sla[ve] and the wid[ow] / Judge the orph[an]

3′ [and] the stranger. [Pl]ead for the infant / plead for the po[or and]

4′ the widow. Rehabilitate [the poor] at the hands of the king.

5′ Protect the po[or and] the slave / [supp]ort the stranger.

ARK — 15 January 2010

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I’m having great success using Teach Yourself to Read Hebrew, by Ethelyn Simon and Joseph Anderson. The book provides an easy step-by-step process for learning to read and write the Hebrew alphabet. Highly recommended. I’m using it in conjunction with my first reading of the Hebrew scriptures in the original language.

ARK — 29 Oct. 2009


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I recently finished reading The Origin of Speeches: Intelligent Design in Language, a fascinating book by Edenics scholar Isaac E. Mozeson.

Edenics is a linguistics project undertaken to study the original human mother tongue called Edenic, the language given to Adam in the garden of Eden. Mozeson is the leader of a group of scholars working on Edenics.

Wikipedia entries related to this idea include “Adamic Language‘” “Proto-World Language,” and “Monogenesis.”

Whereas Mozeson is an independent scholar, Merritt Ruhlen is a more credentialed linguist, a Stanford professor who advocates a monogenetic view of human language. I previously reviewed his book The Origin of Languages: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue — also a fascinating book — see my previous entry, “Ruhlen’s ‘The Origin of Language’ Points to Common Source for All Tongues.”

Mozeson is one of those investigators unlikely to receive much credence from mainstream academia. For one thing, the use of the phrase “intelligent design” in his title is likely to turn away all but the most open-minded of academics.

However, on a more substantive level, one of Mozeson’s key premises flies in the face of conventional linguistic theory, which maintains that words are for the most part arbitrary. Most linguists recognize that humans are innately programmed for language, but they maintain that the words themselves are essentially arbitrary sounds that have arisen and developed over time.

Mozeson, however, asserts that the Edenic program in the human brain naturally inclines humans to assign certain meanings to certain sounds. Humans now speak different languages because of the confusion and dispersion that took place at Babel as describe at Genesis 11:1-9 — go here to see those verses in the King James Version; here you can look them up in the modern New World Translation.

Another departure from mainstream linguistics — although a more subtle departure — is Mozeson’s reconstruction of Edenics by comparison of cognates (similar word forms found in different languages) in many languages at once. Such a method is not unknown in linguistics — this is the kind of method Ruhlen uses, as did his predecessor Joseph Greenberg, also of Stanford.

On page 50, Mozeson points to the obvious cognation of English eye with Hebrew ayin, supported by Chinese yan and Eskimo iye. However, to mainstream scholars any relation between Hebrew and non-semitic languages is anathema. Mozeson writes about such words,

They ought to be called cognates, but linguists would never concede that the English and Hebrew words share a common ancestry.

Admitting such a relationship would take academics in an uncomfortably non-atheistic direction.

Mozeson’s book provides many interesting examples of global cognates and shows their potential relationship to Biblical Hebrew, which he believes is the surviving language closest to the original Edenic. That makes sense, as Noah’s son Shem and other faithful descendants would not have joined in the rebellion at Babel and would not have had their languages confused.

On page 108, Mozeson makes a good case for an Edenic source for the English word market and its cognates in other modern languages: commerce, market, mart, mercantile, mercenary, mercer, merchant, mercury, and merchandise.

Mozeson connects all these cognates with Edenic Mem-Khaf-Resh, meaning to sell.

As another example, he asserts that

The Edenic SHOR (bull) became the Aramaic TOR (bull). This is how Latin and Spanish got words like TAURUS and toro.

While Mozeson’s ideas are interesting and worth considering, I wonder if he is too liberal in defining cognates. Is he cherry-picking?

Mozeson often connects words as cognates even if their consonants appear in a different order.

So, for example, the Edenic for word, Da[V]aR, (Daled-Bhet-Resh in Hebrew), is a permissible cognate to English WORD. Consonants have shifted through a process called metathesis so that D-V-R has become V-R-D (or WoRD).

Maybe calling on metathesis in this manner is not outside the bounds of accepted linguistic methods, but I suspect that Mozeson will be subject to criticism on this front. Critics will say he is playing fast-and-loose with the methods of comparative linguistics.

Regardless of his potential vulnerabilities, Mozeson’s work is intriguing and worthy of consideration. I do have one larger criticism, though — or perhaps it’s more of a question for consideration:

Is Edenics as currently practiced too narrow in scope?

Mozeson’s arguments seem limited to lexical issues — the words themselves and how they were changed among the different human families present at Babel and their descendants.

But should we assume that, when human languages were confused during the late third millennium BCE, only the human lexicon was involved? Could other aspects of human speech have been affected as well — grammar, modality, semantics?

ARK — 24 Oct. 2009

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From what I understand, Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is just a hypothetical construct — hypothetical because no writings in PIE exist and no scripts are known that were used to write it. PIE is reconstructed based on its supposed daughter languages.

My question is whether some of the hypothetical daughter language groups — Proto-Germanic, Anatolian, Romance, Celtic, etc., might actually be remnants of the breakup at Babel around 2,000 BCE. How that breakup looked at the time is not specified in the Bible account.

PIE might have been one of the languages that emerged from the confusion. Then its speakers might have migrated north into Anatolia, the Caucasus, Eastern Europe, Western Asia, etc.

Or PIE might just represent similarities among various split-up language groups that came out of the confusion.

Just thinking out loud.

ARK — 28 Sept. 2009

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An article in NewScientist Thursday alerted me to a recent controversy over the Indus script, a set of symbols associated with the Indus Valley civilization of eastern Pakistan and western India. The Indus valley civilization is dated in the timeframe of 2500 to 1900 BCE, according to writer Ewen Callaway (see “Scholars at odds over mysterious Indus script.”)

The basic controversy is over whether the Indus script really represents a language or is merely a set of religious or political symbols. Advocates on both sides have used computational analysis to support their conclusions.

The viewpoint that Indus script is not a language in part rests on the observation that “most of the inscriptions contain fewer than five characters, few of the characters repeat, and many of the symbols occur very infrequently,” writes Callaway.

This viewpoint is put forward in a 2004 article for the Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies by Steve Farmer and colleagues — see “The Collapse of the Indus-Script Thesis: The Myth of a Literate Harappan Civilization.”

Farmer notes that there were other “nonlinguistic symbol systems in the Near East that served key religious, political, and social functions without encoding speech or serving as formal memory aids.” His paper points to evidence “that the Harappans’ lack of a true script may have been tied to the role played by their symbols in controlling large multilinguistic populations.” (The Indus civilization is sometimes called Harappan, referring to one of the key archaeological sites associated with the culture.)

However, the cocksureness of Farmer’s tone (just consider the title of his article, referring to the “collapse” of the opposite viewpoint and his calling it a “myth”) sets off my “expertitis” meter. The readings are high in this case, so I am interested to find recent research that argues in favor of the Indus-Script thesis that in fact “Indus inscriptions were tightly bound to language,” in Farmer’s words.

Finnish professor of Indology Asko Parpola of the University of Helsinki analyzes and critiques Farmer’s work in “Study of the Indus Script.” It’s worth noting what he has to say, as his work is a key target of Farmer.

Rajesh Rao, a University of Washington computer scientist, has more recently published research based on use of artificial-intelligence pattern-analysis software to study the Indus script.

A writeup in Wired describes Rao’s findings (see “Artificial Intelligence Cracks 4,000-Year-Old Mystery“):

[Rao’s team] fed the program sequences of four spoken languages: ancient Sumerian, Sanskrit and Old Tamil, as well as modern English. Then they gave it samples of four non-spoken communication systems: human DNA, Fortran, bacterial protein sequences and an artificial language.

The program calculated the level of order present in each language. Non-spoken languages were either highly ordered, with symbols and structures following each other in unvarying ways, or utterly chaotic. Spoken languages fell in the middle.

When they seeded the program with fragments of Indus script, it returned with grammatical rules based on patterns of symbol arrangement. These proved to be moderately ordered, just like spoken languages.

Wikipedia offers some useful articles related to this question of the Indus script — see “Indus script,” “Undeciphered writing systems,” and “Decipherment.”

A refreshingly readable discussion of why decipherment is so hard is available from Cecil Adams at The Straight Dope — see his article “How come we can’t decipher the Indus script?” This is the first time I have encountered Cecil Adams, and I am pleased to be able to start following the work of a fellow know-it-all.

AB — 25 April 2009

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Spading Up Ancient Words, a book written in 1984 by Dr. Erich A. von Fange is available in its entirety at this web location.

Von Fange was a professor of psychology and statistics at Concordia University, in Ann Arbor, Michigan from 1962 to 1987. He studied archaeology, ancient history, geology, and paleontology from a Biblical framework, and apparently Spading Up Ancient Words is based on some of his research.

Von Fange’s book appears to be related to Edenics (see “Does all language have a common origin?”), which makes it interesting as a resource for our purposes.

Chapter 2 contains an interesting analysis of the names used in the pre-flood world.

ARK — 19 March 2009

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As I understand it, mainstream scholarship contends that the Hebrew alphabet descended from Phoenician, which descended from a script known as Proto-Canaanite (see the Wikipedia entry for that).

Isaac E. Mozeson in The Origin of Speeches: Intelligent Design in Language argues that the Hebrew alphabet predates and is actually the source for the others. Sometimes Mozeson’s reasoning can be hard to follow, but in chapter 3, “The Aleph-Bet as Keyboard of Creation,” he presents a cogent argument as to why the Hebrew might seem to have come later: the boxy-shaped Torah letters simply were not used as much and were used for the most part by a relatively small number of scholar-scribes:

… Judean kings and most commoners could only read Hebrew from a variety of nonsacred Semitic scripts. However poor the Hebrew literacy level was in the Judean kingdom’s time, it was far worse for the non-scholars in subsequent centuries. It is not conjectured that few Judeans could read or write, but that popular Semitic scripts had replaced the Edenic Aleph-Bet for a long time. For a long enough time, apparently, for scholars to assume that Ezra’s prehistoric Aleph-Bet was new and the result of “evolution.”

The miracle of Hebrew’s survival over the millenia, with relatively minor changes, owes much to the fact that it became only a language of prayer and textual study, and not one of daily conversation. Nobody wrote love letters or laundry lists in the sacred Hebrew Aleph-Bet. The scholars who copied Scriptural scrolls and other apocryphal documents became a small, esoteric group who were charged with maintaining the authentic, boxy Aleph-Bet.

ARK — 3 March 2009

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Did humankind have a common language in ancient times? Did that language include a written form?

Relevant to that question, an article from today in the Daily Galaxy got my attention: “Ancient Language of Universal Symbols Discovered.”

The article connects ancient petroglyphs discovered around the world and claims that they all represent a common ancient script sometimes called Old Negev (see here for a discussion of Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions, including Old Negev) and apparently called First Tongue by some (here is an unattributed article on that topic).

Here’s an interesting chart comparing glyphs found in Colorado with Hebrew. Here’s a map showing locations of petroglyphs around the world.

The Daily Galaxy and First Tongue articles seem to be written more by “fringe” researchers, but that doesn’t mean their ideas should be automatically discounted.

For a more mainstream academic approach to Petroglyphs, see the Wikipedia entry. See also the Rock Art Research Institute, which focuses primarily on African petroglyphs.

ARK — 3 March 2009

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