The early history of the alphabet may require rewriting. Four clay artefacts found at an ancient site in Syria are incised with what is potentially the earliest alphabetic writing ever found. The discovery suggests that the alphabet emerged 500 years earlier than we thought, and undermines leading ideas about how it was invented.

A popular idea is that the alphabet first appeared in Egypt about 3800 years ago, when 20 or so Egyptian hieroglyphs were repurposed as the first alphabet’s letters. The script was then used to write down words in one or more of the ancient languages spoken in south-west Asia at the time.

But a discovery at the roughly 4300-year-old site of Umm el-Marra in Syria challenges this narrative. During excavations there in 2004, Glenn Schwartz at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and his colleagues found four lumps of clay each the size and shape of a human finger. The clay fingers are each inscribed with between one and five symbols, and Schwartz has spent the past 17 years trying to understand them.

“When I first saw them, I thought: this looks like writing,” says Schwartz, but it was clearly unlike the cuneiform writing typical of the time and place.

After considering and rejecting other possibilities – that, for instance, the symbols were from the script used by the Indus Civilisation – Schwartz now argues that the symbols may be early alphabetic letters. He thinks versions of the letters A, L, O and K are present, although it isn’t clear what words the letters might spell out.

The discovery has perplexed some researchers of the early alphabet. If the clay fingers are as old as claimed, they would “blow our current theories about the invention of the alphabet clear out of the water”, says Aaron Koller at Yeshiva University, New York.

Read more: Who invented the alphabet? The untold story of a linguistic revolution

Koller wonders if Schwartz somehow misdated the artefacts, and that they are really about 1000 years younger – although Schwartz is sure they aren’t.

Benjamin Sass at Tel Aviv University, Israel, offers another possibility. He says the Umm el-Marra symbols, whatever they are, don’t look like early alphabetic signs to him, so they don’t pose a challenge to existing ideas of the alphabet’s invention.

But John Darnell at Yale University is more open to the idea that the alphabet is older than we thought. “All writing has a proto-history no doubt, so the signs Schwartz has published could really represent such a thing,” he says.

There is some evidence that there was trade 4300 years ago between Egypt and the ancient cities of what is now northern Syria, says Schwartz – so it is still conceivable the alphabet emerged in Egypt and was then carried north to Umm el-Marra.

Discover the dawn of civilisation:Neolithic and Bronze age excavations in Turkey

Whatever the sequence of events, the current consensus is that the alphabet didn’t become the official writing system of any political state much before about 3200 years ago. This suggests it was passed down through many generations as an informal script that wasn’t used by royals or the powerful elite.

In a second discovery, Felix Höflmayer at the Austrian Archaeological Institute and his colleagues have found an alphabetic inscription on a shard of ceramic that they say dates from towards the end of this informal period. They discovered the 3450-year-old inscription – which is just six letters long – near an ancient city wall at the site of Tel Lachish in Israel.

“With more examples of this kind of writing, we can try to grasp the social milieu in which [the alphabet] survived,” says Höflmayer.

Journal References: Pasiphae, vol 15, p 255, Antiquity, DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2020.157