HLHM Ostracon (Halaham Inscription)

The HLHM ostracon or Halaham Inscription, found during the excation of an ancient Egyption tomb in Thebes, is a a fragment of limestone inscribed on the two sides with lines of hieratic and hieroglyphic characters in blank ink. The flake of limestone (ostracon) inscribed with an ancient Egyptian word list of the fifteenth century BCE turns out to be the world's oldest known abecedary.

circa 1450 BCE

The words have been arranged according to their initial sounds, and the order followed here is one that is still known today. This discovery by Ben Haring (Leiden University) with funding from Free Competition Humanities has been published in the October issue of the Journal of Near Eastern Studies. On one side of the flake is the transliteration into cursive Egyptian writing of the sounds that signify the beginnings of today’s Hebrew alphabet (Aleph, Bet, Gimel). On the other, a contemporary, though now lesser-known letter order, called “Halaḥam,” which was deciphered in 2015, on the same limestone flake, by Leiden University’s Dr. Ben Haring.

The limestone piece is dated to the Egyptian 18th dynasty, from the excavation of Theban Tomb 99 from the necropolis on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor, known as the Tombs of the Nobles. Director of the Cambridge Theban Tombs Project Dr. Nigel Strudwick found the object back in 1995, in what he calls “a later tomb shaft,” dating to about 1450 BCE.

The text is an incomplete list of words written in hieratic, the cursive script used in Ancient Egypt for some 3,000 years. To the left is a column of individual signs that appear to be abbreviations of the words. Very possibly they even render the initial consonants of the words, which would make them alphabetic signs.

circa 1450 BCE

The Theban Tomb TT99 is located in Sheikh Abd el-Qurna. It forms part of the Theban Necropolis, situated on the west bank of the Nile opposite Luxor. The sepulchre is the burial place of the Ancient Egyptian noble, Senneferi, who was active in 1420 BCE. It has been worked on by an expedition from the University of Cambridge since 1992. Senneferi’s tomb, like others built during the New Kingdom had some similar characteristics. These tombs consisted of three levels. Each level served a different function. The lower level is where the burial chambers were located. It was created by digging a shaft well below the surface. This level was known as the Realm of the Dead and belonged to Osiris.

circa 1450 BCE

“The ostrakon is, however, of roughly the same date as the tomb to judge from the handwriting style. So it could have been lying around somewhere in that area of the necropolis for 3,000+ years before it ended up where we found it,” said archaeologist Strudwick. After enviously watching their Egyptian colleagues worshipfully engraving their devotion to their gods through beautiful hieroglyphs, around 1800 BCE these workers decided to adapt the 1,000-odd Egyptian characters into phonetic symbols and essentially invented our alphabet, says Goldwasser.

circa 1450 BCE

The tomb TT99 belongs to the ancient Egyptian noble, Senneferi, who was Overseer of the Seal and “Overseer of the Gold-Land of Amun”, during the reign of Thutmose III of the 18th dynasty. The tomb was painted with vines that seem to grow from the tomb’s floor and bunches of grapes hang among the leaves. The walls and pillars are painted in beautiful brilliant colors. In the final resting place of Senneferi also his wife Taiamu (right) is depicted but nothing is known about her. The beautiful tomb TT99 had been plundered many times by treasure hunters; it was also used as a place of residence and even served as a dumping ground.

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