Enigmatic Tablets from Deir ‘Alla.

Michel de Vreeze reports for ASOR on “The Enigmatic Tablets from Late Bronze Age Deir ‘Alla”:

On April 1, 1964 Henk Franken and his Leiden University based team stumbled upon two clay tablets. Two days later a third tablet was found. These tablets still form an archaeological riddle up to this day. At some excavations tablets are a routine find but Franken and his teams were excavating at Deir ‘Alla, a sizeable tell in the middle of the Jordan Valley, just above where the Zerqa river, the biblical Jabbok, confluences with the Jordan River. […] Among the many finds associated with the Late Bronze Age temple were ceramics including goblets and ceremonial vessels, Mycenean imports, scaled armor and scarabs, and faience vessels including a gift from Egyptian Queen Twosret which provided an approximate dating for the destruction not too long after 1180 BCE. But most striking perhaps were some clay tablets which bore a script that still have no exact parallels.

These rectangular tablets were inscribed with a stylus and featured linear signs with dots marking the ends. Franken and his team found a total of nine tablets or fragments, some of which only bear incised dots (in groups of 7 or 8). Throughout the years more tablets turned up in excavations by a joint Leiden-Yarmouk University expedition, also outside of the temple precinct. The total number of tablets found up-to-today is 15, the last consisting of two separate fragments miraculously fitting together although found in separate places.

Soon after the first discovery was published by Franken, a wide range of interpretations was given for the tablets and their script. These ranged from the Sea People who roamed the Levantine coast at the end of the Late Bronze Age and were seen as responsible for the upheaval in the area, to links with South Arabian writing, known from Yemen, with which the script shares a very general resemblance. Other scholars stuck to more local languages such as Canaanite. But a satisfying reading of the tablets was never achieved and the language in which they were written has remained a mystery. […]

In 2014, archaeologist Gerrit van der Kooij published an overview of the tablets bearing script and established the writing direction as left to right. Using these paleographic observations but altering the sign list, new insights could be gained from the tablets. It can now be established that the script was predominantly written from left to right and contained a small enough number of signs (around 29) to justify calling it an alphabet.

Building on these conclusions it seems that the Deir ‘Alla tablets indeed bear a unique form of alphabet that shares similarities with its apparent ancestors (the proto-Sinaitic script) and sister proto-Canaanite alphabets attested at other Late Bronze Age sites and predominantly found in the Shephelah area. These contemporary alphabets allowed for the confident identification of some parallel consonants in the Deir ‘Alla script.

Click the link for more details and a nice comparative chart of symbols; as the LH reader who sent it to me said (thanks, Hans!), “I would have liked to see links published papers or a transcription of the Canaanite reading, but that’s science journalism for you…”


  1. Jen in Edinburgh says

    According to wikipedia:
    ‘In archaeology, a tell or tel (borrowed into English from Arabic: تَل‎, tall, ‘mound’ or ‘small hill’), is an artificial topographical feature, a species of mound consisting of the stratified debris from the accumulated refuse of generations of people who once formed a settlement and dwelt on the same site.’

    That’s a new word for me – they seem to rise to impressive heights!

    (I like ‘Sea People’, too.)

  2. That is the same word as in Tel Aviv. The name occurs once in the book of Ezekiel, referring to a Mesopotamian placename, and chosen for the new city because of its optimistic-sounding association with Hebrew aviv, ‘spring’. The original Akkadian til abubi meant ‘deluge mound’, rather than the sunnier ‘spring mound’.

  3. Trond Engen says

    I’d never heard of that script.

    I learn that the settlement continued after the destruction without any discernable hiatus, but with a completely new style of pottery. That could either be population replacement by whoever did the destruction or a complete change of sources for luxury goods.

  4. ə de vivre says

    Phun phact: Akkadian tīlu corresponds to Sumerian duř. My pet theory is that this is an early loan word in one direction or the other. Alternations of ui are frequent enough in Sumerian that some people have proposed a /y/ phoneme at some stage of the language. The ř sound is harder to pin down, and there’s only been one attempt to systematically account for it, which unfortunately simply leaves cases that don’t fit its hypothesis, like duř, unaccounted for. But for a sound that later wound up spelled as an [r] to have an [l]-adjacent antecedent isn’t inherently implausible. There are also other words with alternations between [ur] and [il] sequences. Basically, the lesson here is never believe anyone who claims to know enough about Sumerian phonology to make systematic comparisons to other languages.

    In Sumerian, duř was a specific kind of mound, usually one with cultic significance that connected the earthly and divine realms. It was built up through human activity, but didn’t carry the “ancient ruin” connotation it does now. Holy sites, AFAIK, were the only things ever located on a Sumerian duř.

  5. January First-of-May says

    It was built up through human activity, but didn’t carry the “ancient ruin” connotation it does now.

    I’ve read somewhere – not sure of the exact details – that the Mesopotamians had apparently believed that old foundations should not be destroyed, but carefully kept and built over. This had resulted in the neat multi-layer pattern found by modern archaeologists.

  6. It was common to build up on previous “ruins”.

    Even here in Perth WA, we have a present-day street level in the City some half a metre higher than the original ground level, and that’s since 1827.

  7. ə de vivre says

    @January First-of-May

    Rebuilding temples was a major activity for ancient Mesopotamian rulers and was probably an important way for them to legitimize their power to temple elites and the population at large. They weren’t necessarily too concerned with preserving the exact layout of the temple they were rebuilding, but the laying of the temen, which referred to either the pegs used to mark off the area to be cleared for the foundation or the foundation itself, was a major part of the ruler’s ritual creation of the temple. Although, given the archeological record, most claims of building temples were probably only repairs to existing structures. The foundation deposit of the walls of Uruk also bookend the standard version of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

    Ironically, because so many of the “literary” texts that have survived come from temple-adjacent scribal schools, failing to properly maintain temples was a frequently used as an explanation for why tragedy befell rulers or their cities.

    Also, I was wrong to say that duř referred only to mounds made by human activity. It looks like they were also associated with animal dens, as this Old Babylonian lexical list shows.

  8. Trond Engen says

    I wondered where to put this:

    Agranat-Tamir et al., The Genomic History of the Bronze Age Southern Levant, 2020, Cell 181, 1146–1157

    (I give up on consistency in notations)

    Short: The Bronze Age southern Levant has a basic and areally homogenous population of “Canaanites”, Through the Bronze Age and beyond there’s an inflow of genes from the northeast, exemplified by the individuals from the ruling class at Megiddo (Hurrians acc. to historical records). Coastal cities differ from inland sites in being more diverse, probably due both to a variety of local sources and to foreign admixture.

    The paper doesn’t go into the language(s) of the Canaanites, but I think there’s good reason to believe that (Canaanite) Northwest Semitic was the language (or one of them) of the substrate population(s), at least since the time of Sargon’s conquest. There’s no evidence of a later genetic turnover or a new source of admixture, fitting well with the uninterrupted settlement of Deir ‘Alla”.

  9. Interesting, thanks!

  10. Trond Engen says

    I should add that it seems to be a sister paper to Skourtanioti et al (discussed here), which touches on the Northern Levant (or at least they were published in the same number of Cell, and Skourtanioti et al links to Agranat-Tamir et al.). The two agree in general on the northeasterly geneflow throughout the Bronze Age, but not on its exact source. In the Northern Levant there was an equally strong flow from the Southern Levant, which is for obvious reasons is lacking in the south. But I wonder if these could be reconsiled as the same northeasterly stream(s) and a steady process of Pan-Levantine homogenization.

  11. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    confluences? conflues? confluxates?

    Henceforth I’m going to call Atlassian Confluence (the bane of right thinking technical writers everywhere) Sammenrend in Danish. Pour épater les maîtres de scrum. I mean, we do have an agency-wide policy of using Danish where possible innit?

  12. Danish, Welsh, or Kusaal as the situation warrants.

  13. Someone above asked for a photo or transcription. Googling deir all tablets I found a PDF uploaded to the ASOR site of an article by Michel de Vreeze with photos of tablets, a sign list, and a reading of the broken and reconstituted tablet.

    There is probably a better way to link that, but I didn’t find the asor page where it resides, only the PDF itself.

  14. (I googled deir alla tablets, not deir all tablets, of course. Retyping in this message, my fingers initially typed deir all again, by English-speaker’s habit I guess).

  15. this dot-end style reminds me of agrippa’s occult scripts, though i can’t imagine there’s a historical relationship (pace robert anton wilson).

    the text given in the pdf, on the other hand, is clearly an exemplar of the culhar’ narrative, further demonstrating its pervasive presence throughout the region in a period when alphabetic scripts were emerging (just as k. leslie steiner’s work would lead us to expect).

    (i also note the appearance in one of the photos of a “Late Bronze Age jug[ga]let[te]”, which – with the proper reconstruction of the caption’s text – provides evidence that the ICP was not unknown in the period)

  16. perhaps more usefully, a touch of searching turned up this [researchgate, with link to public full-text pdf] much more detailed scholarly article by de vreeze.

  17. Stu Clayton says

    Henceforth I’m going to call Atlassian Confluence (the bane of right thinking technical writers everywhere) Sammenrend in Danish. Pour épater les maîtres de scrum.

    Spare them not, for scrum is dumb ! Confluence editors are a disaster, even without the scrumbags.

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