Inscribed Arrowheads: The Missing Link in the Evolution of the Alphabet

Sidebar to: Part III: How the Alphabet Democratized Civilization

Thanks to an unusual fad—the carving of inscriptions on arrowheads—that flourished in the 11th century B.C.E., we now have a bridge from proto-Canaanite script to the Early Phoenician linear script that is the immediate ancestor of Old Hebrew, Old Aramaic and the early Greek alphabet.

The inscribed arrowheads first turned up on the antiquities market in the early 1950s; upon investigation it was learned that they had been uncovered while ploughing a field in El-Khadr, a village near Bethlehem. Three of the original hoard were inscribed with the phrase “Arrowhead of ‘Abd-labi’t,” which means “Servant of the Lion-lady”; ‘Abd-labi’t also appears on a 14th-century B.C.E. list of archers from Ugarit, on modern Syria’s Mediterranean coast.

Some 25 years after the first El-Khadr finds, Frank Moore Cross, while in the home of a Jerusalem lawyer, happened to notice an arrowhead in a cabinet that seemed very similar to the El-Khadr pieces. Cross quickly noted that it, too, bore the name ‘Abd-labi’t. The lawyer informed Cross of another such arrowhead in the hands of a private collector; the count of inscribed arrowheads was thus raised to five. More recently the Israel Museum obtained two more 11th-century arrowheads and yet a third has been acquired by Elie Borowski’s Bible Lands Museuma; all three have recently been published by Cross.

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