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Bronze scepter from the Nahal Mishmar. Source: Poliocretes / CC BY-SA 3.0.

Earliest Writing System May Have Been Developed by Ancient Metalworkers 6,000 Years Ago

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An Israeli academic has claimed to have found the earliest writing in the world. He claims that a proto-writing system was developed by ancient metalworkers over 6,000 years ago in the southern Levant. They belonged to the mysterious but very important Ghassulian culture.

Nissim Amzallag, who works at the Ben Gurion University and is an expert on the culture and origins of metalworking in the ancient world made the claim. He developed the theory after examining the famous hoard from Nahal Mishmar one of the most important archaeological discoveries from the Chalcolithic era, also known as the Copper Age. The Nahal Mishmar hoard was found in a cave in 1961 and is 6,300 years old.

The cache included hundreds of mace heads, scepters, and strange objects that are crown shaped. In total, some 421 objects were found. It is believed that they were secreted in the cave by priests from a nearby shrine, possibly during a time of danger, and they were never recovered.

Photo of discovery of Nahal Mishmar hoard in 1961. (Chamberi / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Photo of discovery of Nahal Mishmar hoard in 1961. (Chamberi / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Ghassulian Culture

The bronze objects were probably made by members of the Ghassulian culture. This was a very influential and sophisticated Copper Age culture in the ancient Levant who had trading links with Anatolia and the Caucasus. They developed a complex society and they had a high level of “craft specialization” and were experts at metalworking, according to the Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies .

Amzallag, studied the objects, figures such as horned animals, geometric patterns and motifs, and concluded that they were symbolic. This is something shared by other experts who believe that the artifacts had some ceremonial or religious meaning. However, according to Haaretz he also argues that the “representations form a rudimentary three-dimensional code, in which each image symbolizes a word or phrase and communicates a certain concept”.

Discovered at Nahal Mishmar dozens of scepters and other objects made of copper. Do these represent an early writing system? (Nick Thompson / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Discovered at Nahal Mishmar dozens of scepters and other objects made of copper. Do these represent an early writing system? (Nick Thompson / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Early Writing System

The academics believe that the “Nahal Mishmar hoard should be seen as a precursor to the early writing systems that would emerge centuries later in Egypt and Mesopotamia” reports Haaretz. He believes the symbols were part of a secret code used by Ghassulian smiths. These metalworkers were very sophisticated for the time and had contacts with other cultures.

Amzallag analyzed several key pieces in particular and claims to have deciphered their symbols. These signifiers represented physical objects and are known as ‘ logograms’ and were the basis of later writing systems. In order to communicate complex ideas, the so-called rebus-principle was used by the Ghassulians. According to Haaretz, this principle used “a character, or phonogram, whose corresponding word sounds very similar to the complex idea that the writer is trying to communicate”.

Cooper items discovered at Nahal Mishmar. Researcher claims to have deciphered their symbols. (Matanya / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Cooper items discovered at Nahal Mishmar. Researcher claims to have deciphered their symbols. (Matanya / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The researchers believe that the many representations of horned animals are of ibex. Haaretz reports that the “West Semitic word used for young ungulates does sound very similar to the designation of ‘dust’ and ‘ore’”. This means that the representation of the horned animal was possibly related to how alloys were used and made. Amzallag also believes that there is a connection between birds and the early Semitic word for metalworking.

The symbol of the horned ibex was possibly related to how alloys were used and made. (Teacoolish / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The symbol of the horned ibex was possibly related to how alloys were used and made. (Teacoolish / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

A Secret Code Used by Metalworkers

The reason for the development of this script was based on the needs of the metalworkers. All of the symbols signify some aspect of working with copper and bronze. The smith's craft was one that was considered almost magical and their skills would have been closely guarded.

They probably developed the script so that they could share their secrets and instruct other smiths, without divulging them to the general population and to other groups. The writing was a secret code that was known only to the Ghassulian smiths and metalworkers.

However, there has been considerable pushback against this theory. Firstly, it is not known if the Ghassulians, spoke a Semitic language and secondly it is notoriously difficult to interpret ancient symbols and iconography. Then there is the argument that the symbols are only decorative.

It is generally agreed that the first systematic writing systems were developed in Egypt and Mesopotamia around 3,200 BC. However, the academic believes that the Ghassulians helped to develop the ‘rebus principle’ and this was a critical contribution to writing and its development. If the interpretation of the bronze objects is correct the Ghassulian may have developed an important proto-writing system that played a crucial part in the development of literacy in the ancient Near East.

Top image: Bronze scepter from the Nahal Mishmar. Source: Poliocretes / CC BY-SA 3.0 .

By Ed Whelan

Comments

“West Semitic word used for young ungulates does sound very similar to the designation of ‘dust’ and ‘ore’”. This means that the representation of the horned animal was possibly related to how alloys were used and made.

Well, if these Ibax are like goats and they head butt each other my guess is that symbol would mean hammering the metal.

That's my hypothesis.
Cool stuff in anycase, before I go, code isn't language. It might be a code but not be writing, conlangers know this.

Gary Moran's picture

Very disappointing article – much more thorough coverage in April ‘14 article by April Holloway. 

Two major questions – has the metal been analyzed to determine source? And, how was the age determined?

Without looking closely at these items, it’s hard to know the truth about this claim.  However, it’s highly likely these might just be random decorations and not a proto-language.  I would be careful about making claims of a “secret” language only known to metalworkers.  It seems premature.

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