Tell Umm el-Marra (Syria) and Early Alphabetic in the Third Millennium:

Four Inscribed Clay Cylinders as a Potential Game Changer

16 April 2021

Tell Umm el-Marra (Syria) and Early Alphabetic in the Third Millennium:

Four Inscribed Clay Cylinders as a Potential Game Changer

Christopher Rollston, George Washington University


              The excavations at Tell Umm el-Marra in Western Syria were conducted from 1994-2010.  The excavations were sponsored by Johns Hopkins University and the University of Amsterdam, and they were co-directed by Glenn Schwartz and Hans Curvers. Among the major supporters of the excavations were National Geographic and the National Science Foundation. Within this blog post, I will convey the basic contours of the evidence outlined in Schwartz’s (2021) article, and then at the conclusion of my synthesis, I will convey my own perspective regarding these four inscribed clay cylinders: namely, the script is Early Alphabetic (based on the clear morphology of the letters), the language is arguably Semitic, and the date is early (based on the secure archaeological context and carbon 14 dates). At this time, I will turn in earnest to this task…

              The site of Umm el-Marra is ca. 20 hectares (i.e., ca. 50 acres).  It is located in the Jabbul Plain of northwestern Syria, roughly between the city of Aleppo and the Euphrates valley (Tell Umm el-Marra is about halfway between ancient Aleppo and ancient Emar). It has been suggested that Tell Umm el-Marra was the ancient city of Tuba, known from cuneiform sources. It is arguably the largest site in the Jabbul plain.

              Schwartz has noted that “particularly striking with respect to the third millennium BC occupation on Umm el-Marra is the activity on the acropolis in the middle of the site.  Here, at least ten mausoleums were built, one next to the other, over a period of some 300 years. Judging from their large-scale architecture and contents, including personal items of gold, silver, and lapis lazuli, the tombs were associated with individuals of high social rank, possibly the ruling families of Umm el-Marra or its region” (Schwartz 2021, 256).  In short, there is demonstrable evidence that some of those at the site of Umm el-Marra were very wealthy elites.

I. Four Inscribed Clay Cylinders from Tell Umm el-Marra: The Basic Data

              Significantly, during the 2004 field season, four small inscribed clay cylinders were found at Umm el-Marra in a third-millennium tomb. These were “lightly baked” (Glenn Schwartz, personal communication). In a very recent, and particularly erudite article, Glenn Schwartz has described this find and its archaeological context in substantial detail (Schwartz 2021; cf. also Schwartz 2010, for his earlier views).  In terms of the precise archaeological context, Schwartz has indicated that “the contents of the upper layer of Tomb 4 are stylistically homogenous and belong to the Early Bronze IVA or ENL 4 period, perhaps ca. 2450-2300 BC, equivalent to Umm el-Marra Period V.” he goes on to state that “since the pottery exhibits good parallels with the ceramic assemblage from Ebla Palace G, whose destruction is best assigned to ca. 2300 BC, I posit a twenty-fourth century BC date for the Tomb 4 upper layer” (Schwartz 2021, 256-257).  Furthermore, and particularly importantly, Schwartz also notes that this dating is “supported by the carbon-14 results from Umm el-Marra, which provide dates in the late third millennium for the EB IVB/ENL 5 period which succeeds EB IVA/ENL 4” (Schwartz 2021, 257).

              My initial thought (because of the graphemic shapes of the signs on the cylinders and the clear similarity to Early Alphabetic letters) was that these cylinders might be intrusive, coming from the second millennium BCE, not the third millennium. However, Schwartz has emphasized that “it is very unlikely that the cylinders were intrusive from a later period.”  He goes on to state that “they were resting on a tomb floor in a relatively widely-distributed area, not in a closely-arranged bunch as one might expect if they had been inside a small, undetected animal burrow or pit.” He states further that “they were about 80 cm below a scatter of broken mudbricks that had probably collapsed from the walls of the tomb, sealing the context of the cylinders.” In terms of size and shape of the cylinders themselves, Schwartz has stated that they are about that of “a human finger” and “are perforated lengthwise.” (Schwartz 2021, 257).   

              As for the signs on these four cylinders, Schwartz indicates that he finds them to be “relatively crude” (I do not find them to be any more crude than most of the rest of Early Alphabetic, something which I attribute to the fact that Early Alphabetic was never really standardized with regard to the direction of writing, the orientation of the letters, or the stance of the letters). Moreover, Schwartz suggests that they were probably incised with an implement like a wooden stick or a reed rather than a carefully made stylus” (Schwartz 2021, 257).  As for the number of graphemic signs, Schwartz notes that there are twelve individual graphemes (if the single sign from the fourth cylinder is included). Since some signs occur more than once, it is useful to note that Schwartz has stated that there are “eight distinct” signs (Schwartz 2021, 258). He also notes that “given the small number of sign values attested, it is difficult to ascertain whether the system was logographic, syllabic, alphabetic, or a combination of these” (Schwartz 2021, 258). Schwartz then moves into a methodical analysis of the various possibilities for these signs, based on writing systems or recording systems in the ancient Near Eastern world.  First and foremost, these signs are certainly not cuneiform.  Furthermore, Schwartz notes that they do not seem to be “potmarks incised on jars and pots in third millennium Syria and upper Mesopotamia” (Schwartz 2021, 258). They also do not seem to be “numerical characters,” such as are known in the Habur region (Schwartz 2021, 259). Furthermore, he mentions that “besides cuneiform, the major Near Eastern writing system of the third millennium BC was Egyptian.”  He notes that although there are some similarities (e.g., N5 and S29 in Gardiner 1957), but he concludes that “the similarities are not especially close, and perforated clay cylinders with hieroglyphic or hieratic inscriptions are not attested in Egypt” (Schwartz 2021, 259). More distantly, he notes that there were some connections between the Indus civilization and southern Mesopotamia in the third millennium, and that three of the characters on his clay cylinders might be compared with certain Indus symbols (namely, 283, 358 variant b, and 215 variant a), but he then concludes that “none of these parallels is especially close” (Schwartz 2021, 259). He also considers the early second millennium “pseudo-hierlglyphs from Byblos,” but reasonably concludes that “there are few convincing matches with the symbols from Umm el-Marra (Schwartz 2021, 259).

II. Early Alphabetic in Second Millennium Mesopotamia

              Early Alphabetic inscriptions are also seemingly attested in Mesopotamia, and Schwartz recognizes the significance of this (Schwartz 2021, 260). These alphabetic inscriptions are part of the Schoyen Collection. I have discussed these in the past (Rollston 2020, 69-70), and find it useful (for reasons of economy) largely to cite here my previous statements: “Stephanie Dalley has recently published a number of Akkadian tablets from the First Sealand Dynasty, and some brief, difficult Early Alphabetic inscriptions are present on the edge of four of these tablets (Dalley 2009, 15; plate 175 and drawings on plates 30, 50). In terms of date, Dalley stated that ‘the cuneiform King-lists place the First Sealand Dynasty between the Old Babylonian and the Kassite, and there seems no reason to contest that’ (Dalley, personal communication; see also Dalley 2009, 1-17). Regarding the grammar and the logograms (etc.) of these tablets, Dalley stated that this makes it certain that this corpus of tablets ‘come from a period at the end of the Old Babylonian Dynasty.’ Thus, regarding an approximate absolute date of these tablets from the First Sealand Dynasty, Dalley has stated that a date of ca. 1500 BCE is the most convincing (the presence of certain known royal names is also part of the equation)” (Rollston 2020, 69-70). Nevertheless, there is a fly in the ointment which I would be remiss not to emphasize.   Namely, as is the case with tens of thousands of cuneiform tablets, these Sealand Tablets were not found on a scientific excavation, but rather they appeared for sale on the antiquities market.  Therefore, we have no actual archaeological context for them.  Regarding the authenticity of the tablets, including the alphabetic inscriptions on four of them, however, Dalley has stated that she has ‘no doubt that these are all genuine” (personal communication). My sense is that Dalley is probably correct about the authenticity, although I do still harbor some modest doubts. In any case, if accepting the authenticity of the alphabetic inscriptions on the Sealand Tablets, the presence of these alphabetic inscriptions from Mesopotamia in the 15th century is important (Rollston 2020, 69-70).

III. Early Alphabetic in Egypt and the Levant

              In terms of the earlier history of the alphabet, especially as reflected in the Early Alphabetic inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol, the most elegant and convincing date (based especially on things such as the palaeographic similarities between Middle Egyptian Hieroglyphic and Hieratic vis a vis the Early Alphabetic inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol as well as the dating of Egyptian inscriptions at these same sites, etc.) is often contended to be the chronological horizon of the 18th century BCE.  The history of this discussion, along with various augmentations of it, have been recited by various scholars in various publications, including some of mine (see, for example, Rollston 2020, along with the bibliography there).  Of course, someone might attempt to push the data down chronologically and argue for the 17th century BCE for the inscriptions of Serabit and el-Hol. Conversely, it is worth emphasizing that as for the date of the invention of Early Alphabetic, Orly Goldwasser has argued for a date of ca. 1840 BCE (Goldwasser 2017, 142), an earlier date than has often been embraced.  Frank Moore Cross dated the invention of the alphabet to ca. 18th century BCE (Cross 1994, 57) and Joseph Naveh dated the invention of the alphabet to ca. 1700 BCE (Naveh 1987, 42). In essence, therefore, this chronological horizon (19th or 18th century) has been the consensus view (although occasionally a [much] lower date will be proposed [e.g., Sass 2005], but the data continue to mount against that view).

It is also important to emphasize the usage of Early Alphabetic in the broader Levant during the second millennium BCE. At this juncture, therefore, I will summarize this point by reiterating the data which I have discussed in various previous publications (e.g., Rollston 2020, 73).  Namely, Ugaritic (13th century BCE, and wedge-shaped in nature) is not the only attested alphabetic writing system in the Levant during the second millennium BCE. Indeed, various Early Alphabetic inscriptions (which are pictographic in nature,….and are reflective of the acrophonic principle) have been discovered at a number of sites in the Levant, ranging from around the 17th century BCE through the 10th century BCE. Note in this connection the following: the Beth Shemesh Ostracon (Driver 1954, 100-101, and plate 40; Naveh 1987, 35 with drawing), the Beth Shemesh Incised Potsherd (McCarter, Bunimovitz, and Lederman 2011), The Gezer Sherd (Taylor 1930 and plate 1), the Gezer Jar Signs (Seger 1983 and plates 1-4), Izbet Sarteh (Naveh 1978), the Ophel (Jerusalem) Incised Sherd (Mazar, Ben-Shlomo, and Aḥituv 2013; Hamilton 2015, with literature), Lachish Ewer (Cross 1954 and literature), the Lachish Dagger (Starkey 1937), the Lachish Bowl Inscripton (Ussishkin 1983, 155-157, and plate 40), the Megiddo Gold Ring (Guy 1938), the Qubur Walaydah Bowl (Cross 1980), the Qeiyafa Ostracon (Misgav, Garfinkel, and Ganor 2009; Rollston 2011), the Qeiyafa Ba’al Jar Inscription (Garfinkel, Golub, Misgav, and Ganor 2015), the Raddana Handle (Cross and Freedman 1971), the Shechem Plaque (Böhl 1938). Added to the discussion is now a new inscription from Tel Lachish (Höflmayer, Misgav, Webster, Streit 2021).

              Of these inscriptions, the Lachish Dagger is among the most important of the Early Alphabetic inscriptions from the Levant.  The archaeological context for this dagger is a tomb of the Middle Bronze Age (Starkey 1937; Sass 1988, 53-54; Goldwasser 2017, 140-142), arguably ca. the 17th century BCE.  Cross suggested (in 1967) that this inscription (consisting of four letters) may not be Early Alphabetic (see conveniently Cross 2003, 317-329, esp. note 13), but the script seems indeed to be Early Alphabetic and the fact that the archaeological context is a secure tomb of the 17th century is also paramount (in terms of date). In addition, I would contend that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Gezer Jar Signs (Seger 1983), incised before the firing of the pots, are Early Alphabetic and date to the Middle Bronze Age or early Late Bronze Age. Indeed, excavator Joseph Seger contends that these date to ca. the late 17th century BCE. Furthermore, the Megiddo Gold Ring must be part of the discussion as well. It hails from an excavated tomb, and according to P.L.O. Guy, the pottery found with the ring was MB II and LB II (Guy 1938, 173-177, and 68-72, plus Pl. 128: 15; and fig 177).  The precise letters that are attested have been the subject of discussion, but the fact that this inscription is written in Early Alphabetic is certain. Thus, I cannot concur with the statement of my dear friend Benjamin Sass that this inscription is a “pseudo-inscription” (pace Sass 1988, 101). I have collated this microscopically and consider it a nice, and readable, Early Alphabetic inscription (Rollston 2020, 73).

IV. Umm el-Marra’s Early Alphabetic: More Detailed Focus

              It is worth noting that in the past Schwartz has been reluctant to affirm that the four inscribed clay cylinders from Tomb 4 of Umm el-Marra are alphabetic (Schwartz 2010). Thus, he certainly did not rush to this conclusion.  Moreover, his most recent article about these is also very cautious (Schwartz 2021), as he moves through various possibilities (as discussed above).  But it is clear that he is now willing to state that this is the most reasonable position (i.e., it is Early Alphabetic).  And I concur.  That is, the most reasonable conclusion is that the Umm el-Marra clay cylinders are inscribed with signs that are most readily understood as Early Alphabetic letters (graphemes).  Moreover, since the Early Alphabetic alphabet was used to write Semitic, it is logical to conclude that this is the language of the Umm el-Marra inscriptions (the fact that they were found in Syria would also augment this conclusion, of course). 

The readings (with various caveats and provisos) of the first cylinder and third cylinders are posited by Schwartz to be, in essence, k’y (reading dextrograde), with that of the second reading wn‘ls. The fourth cylinder is more fragmentary with only a single grapheme preserved, and probably not fully (thus the options are greater, in terms of possible readings).  Furthermore, as Schwartz notes, reading sinistrograde is also option (i.e., he does not commit to either dextrograde or sinistrograde).  Indeed, Early Alphabetic could be written dextrograde (left to right), sinistrograde (right to left), boustrophedon (with consecutive lines written dextrograde and then sinistrograde, and so on), as well as columnar (top to bottom).  Naturally, since we are dealing with one-line inscriptions, making a certain determination about the direction of writing is difficult (since one can often find a possible root word in Semitic with which to associate one’s decision about the direction of reading).  That is not to say that it is entirely arbitrary.  It is not, since lexical and morphemic matters will often bring a particular word to the fore (and that’s the case with these inscriptions as well), as will at times the direction of the “face” of the letters.  It is also worth emphasizing that not only is the direction of writing a variable with Early Alphabetic, stance and rotation are as well (and these are often impacted by the direction of writing, of course).  Thus, the stance and rotation of the letters on these inscriptions are not surprising.  After all, with Early Alphabetic, this aspect of writing was certainly not fixed.

V. Some Final Reflections

              One factor which is of paramount importance is the putative time-frame for the production of the Umm el-Marra Inscriptions.  I have pressed my friend and teacher Glenn Schwartz on this quite hard (in the past), but he has strongly affirmed (in his articles on these inscriptions, as noted above, and in personal correspondence) that it just does not seem all that convincing to consider these to be intrusive elements from a later period in this third millennium tomb.  In this connection, it is worth noting that there were established connections between Syria and Egypt in the Early Bronze Age (e.g., Biga 2016). Furthermore, there were also established connections between Syria and Mesopotamia in the Early Bronze Age (e.g., Cooper, 2012; Cooper 2013).  And, of course, with the Levantine site of Byblos, the connections with Egypt during this chronological horizon (and earlier ones, as well as later ones) are especially clear as well. In short, in terms of the origins of the alphabet and its movement to places such as Umm el-Marra, there are various possible or plausible options.

              The problem, of course, is that any attempt to decipher Early Alphabetic is difficult and precarious (with a few exceptions) because of (among other things) the brevity of most of the texts at our disposal.  These specimens of Early Alphabetic from Umm el-Marra are no exception in that regard. I’m sure that some will posit with confidence this or that reading and understanding.  I’m not so inclined.  Indeed, that which would be really useful and important at this time would be for longer inscriptions to be found, and similar sorts of inscriptions from this early of a period (i.e., 3rd millennium BCE) in this region or some other region (be it Egypt, or Mesopotamia proper, or the northern or southern Levant).  Suffice it to state, though, that we have here some important inscriptions, it is most reasonable (based on the morphemic similarities with Early Alphabetic attested elsewhere) to contend that these are Early Alphabetic, and to note that the early history of the alphabet may have begun earlier than we had thought. In short, these inscriptions from Umm el-Marra do seem to be game changers and these should and will be a component of all future debates and discussions about the world’s first use of an alphabetic writing system.

Christopher Rollston (Rollston@gwuedu)

** I should like to mention that I was a member of the excavation staff in 1995, and I also studied archaeology at the graduate level with Glenn Schwartz at Johns Hopkins. Along those same lines, I should also like to mention that I benefited from discussions with Assyriologist Jerrold Cooper and Archaeologist Glenn Schwartz about these finds from Tell Umm el-Marra.


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