Friday, November 18, 2011

Thamudic Scripts

Yeha altar at the Almaqah temple was built in the 8th to 6th centuries BC.
The "monumental script" on the Almaqah altar found near the city of Wuqro in the region of Tigray, Ethiopia has been identified as Thamudic (Giovanni Garbini, 1976).

Connections have been made between the ancient Thamudic scripts found from Syria to Yemen and the ancient Afro-Asiatic languages. Approximately 11000 Thamudic inscriptions have been found scattered from Syria to Ethiopia. Most are found in Yemen. These are often accompanied by petroglyphs of humans and oxen with circles and spirals. Similar marks have been identified along the Nile in Sudan and in the 6th century Kok Turki runes (Orkhon script) of the pre-Islamic Turkic people of Northern China.

Thamudic scripts are found on ancient rock etchings and paintings. These often show a human-ox head bucranium with or without horns, and sometimes associated with a symbol such as circles with internal radial lines. Such images also have been found in Sudan.

3000 BC rock carving in Sudan along the Nile
Credit: Tim Karberg/Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster

Related reading: Early Written SignsThe Writing System of MenesEnigmatic Petroglyphs of Saudi Arabia's High Plateau; Proto-Elamite ScriptThe Urheimat of the Canaanite YThamudic and Nabataean Inscriptions from Umm Al-Rasas by M.C.A. Macdonald; Old North Arabian ScriptsThe Dispilio Tablet

In the article that follows, the cultural anthropologist Ahmed Achrati provides an argument for a wide diffusion of Thamudic scripts among different populations from the Neolithic period to the Islamic Middle Age.

"Thamudic traces: some remarks on 'Regarding the thamoud' by G. Lombry"
By Ahmed Achrati

G. E. Lombry's comments are a welcome reminder of the importance of the pre-Islamic Arabian archaeological heritage and the need to improve the focus and orientation of our research in this area. He re marks that' The "Thamoudian style" is a common but indistinct term to refer to a badly defined period of time; some of the petroglyphs attributed to it belong to different cultures, even to the Neolithic or the Islamic Middle Age. These remarks capture the essence of the problem involved in the study of the Arabian inscriptions, including publication, interpretation and chronology. The following note is intended to amplify some of the ideas in these remarks, albeit within the broad ethno-linguistic framework of what is often referred to as the Near East.

1. Ethno-linguistic framework

A. Thamudic script
The names used for the designation of ancient scripts are sometimes purely taxonomic inventions, with no known connection to the referent ethnic group. The vexing question of identifying the people who used a given script is further complicated by the fact that people who use a script do not necessarily speak the language of that script. As a classificatory device, the term 'Thamudic' was coined by Mark Lidzbarski (Van den Branden 1966:16), but what is comforting about it, as A. F. L. Beeston has indicated, is that it enjoys an internal structure resting on a large and diverse quantity of inscriptions and a wide spatial distribution.

Thamudic also benefits from considerable external validation (Beeston 1984). S. Jamme and van den Branden even argue for the unity of the Thamudic script (van den Branden 1966), although this is resisted by J. Ryckmans (1984: 74-75) and MacDonald (2000: 32).

What is referred to in the literature as Thamudic consists of approximately 11000 inscriptions found scattered all around the Arabian Peninsula from Syria to Yemen (MacDonald 2000: 44). The bulk of the Thamudic texts, about 9000 of the inscriptions, were collected by the Philby-Ryckmans-Lippens expedition in central Arabia. The remaining Thamudic inscriptions come from north-west Arabia. These have been divided by Winnett into three groups: Thamudic B, C, and D. A fourth group E has been added by G. King.

B. Thamud
Within the corpus of the Thamudic inscriptions, the narre tmd occurs four, possibly six, times (in Thamudic B and D). Two more instances occur in Safaitic (MacDonald 2000:66, n. 39; also Dhayyeb 2000: 3). A variation of this tenn is also thought to exist in South Arabic texts (Dhayyeb 2000: 5).

Not much is known about the Thamud, but, as Lombray said, tribes by that name are referred to in the Assyrian records of Sargon II (722-705 B.C.E.). Arab tribes and people are also referred to in the Assyrian records, but in one of a set of letters coming from southern Mesopotomia and dating back to about the sixth century B.C.E., a person is called te-mu-da-a arba-a-a, which has been translated as the 'Tamudean', the 'Arab' (Retso 2003:190-1). The letter also mentions Tayma, an oasis in central Arabia. Thamud is also found in Classical sources. In Diodorus and Strabo, for example, we find the Thamud referred to as Tamoudenoi, and in Expositio Totius Mundi (c. 357 C.E., author unknown), they are called Thamudeni. In the Qur'an, 'Thamud' is mentioned twenty-six times, and Muslim exegetes and historians have commented on them extensively (e.g. Ibn Hisham, al-Tabari and al-Tha'alibi).

C. Chronology
Some of the Thamudic texts are dated or datable, but most of them are chronologically indeterminate. While dating the Thamudic script is important, the issue of chronology is not particular to this script. In fact, as G. Mendenhall (1984) has indicated, what is needed is a chronological framework that encompasses all the Arabian scripts, which raises the question of the development of alphabetic writing itself, and also calls for a greater integration of parietal, epigraphic and linguistic knowledge in the archaeological research.

The chronology and development of the pre-Islamic Arabian scripts is yet to be firmly established but we know that the Arabian and the North-West Semitic (Phoenecian, Canaanite) alphabetic traditions are the two great alphabetic systems of the ancient Near East. Each with its own alphabetic order, the Phoenecian 'bgd and the Arabian hlhm, these two alphabetic traditions are thought to have originated from a common source in the Syro-Palestinian region and separated sometimes in the Bronze Age (Mendenhall 1984; MacDonald 2000). Features of these two alphabetic traditions are found in the older (cuneiform alphabet) of Ugarit texts and also in the much older syllabic texts of Ebla (2500) and Byblos. This indicates that 'both letter orders were in use before the beginning of the twelfth century B.C.' (MacDonald 2000: 32). What is remarkable, though, is that whereas the North-West Semitic lost some of the old phonetic features, many of these are retained only in the Arabian, including most of the Ugarit 30 consonants system, in contrast to only 22 Phoenician letters, as well as a set of differentiated emphatic consonants (Owens 1998: 53; MacDonald 2000: 32; Mendenhall 1984: 98; also Lipinski 1997: 150; and Gordon 1997: 102). Moreover, although sources of Classical Arabic go only to the seventh century C.E., this relatively young language still contains most of the older inventory of Semitic phonological, morphological and lexical elements (e.g. the independent personal pronouns of Ugarit, and also the personal pronoun suffixes; see Moscati 1964: 106; Rabin 1984: 291). In fact, as J. Owens has pointed out, so much of the older Semitic phonological inventory is presenved in Arabic, that in relation to the old Akkadian, 'one can say that Arabic is "older" ' (Owens 1998: 53). Lexically, Al Yasin also thinks that the Arabic of the seventh century C.E. contains more of the Ugaritic cognates of 1400 B.C.E. than does the Hebrew Old Testament (in Hayes 1991: 610).

What all this means is that 'a thorough re-examination of the history and relationship of the Semitic languages is now in order', as Mendenhall (1984: 95) has pointed out. 'The basis of this re-examination', he added,' cannot be a mere evolutionary theory, but the much more solid foundation of historical linguistic evidence on the one hand, and archaeological evidence of population centres of diffusion, on the other'. This leads to a broader question of socio-cultural origin.

D. Afroasiatic roots
Ancient speech may be impossible to excavate but language is an important indicator of ancestry and population movement (Ruhlen 1994a: 149 and passim, 1994b: 18). In Africa, the linguistic affinities among Berber, Ancient Egyptian, Coptic, Chadic, Semitic and Cushitic (Befa) have been understood to imply a single origin, leading to their inclusion in a single family, called Afroasiatic, instead of the racially-tainted 'Hamitic'. For a long time, it was thought that the origin of Afroasiatic was in the Levant. Accordingly, groups of Eurasian populations are believed to have 'backtracked to Africa, giving rise to the Afroasiatic family' (Ruhlen 1994a: 193). This view, however, has been rejected by many linguists, including C. Ehret (1995), Allan R. Bomhard (1988, 1996), Daniel F. McCall (1998). These linguists distance themselves from the traditional views that favour Semitism (Ehret 1995: 5). Thus, for example, Ehret believes that pre-Proto-Semitic roots are closer to the Proto-Afroasiatic, making consideration of the Semitic etymology secondary rather than a prerequisite for reconstructive work (ibid. 3). And A. R. Bomhard decries the fact that'many Semiticists stubbornly cling to the reconstructivn' of Proto-Semitic alone without taking into account phonological data from other Afroasiatic phyla (Bomhard 1988:113).

2. Rock art
There is an imbalance in the archaeological research and publication in favour of the monumental, the literal, and the settled coasts of the Arabian Peninsula. Nomadic life is often brought in only for the purpose of filling the archaeological gaps between urban/ settled agricultural periods. Sometimes they are even presented as the agent of urban decline/destruction. For example, espousing Dostal's theory of camel domestication, P J. Parr thinks 'it is hard to resist the temptation to speculate on the possible connection between this breakdown of urban conditions and the rise of camel nomadism' (Parr 1984: 47). But Parr's idea of periods of 'archaeological blanks' in the east and the centre of the Peninsula does not account for rock art, and the lasting record of the most perennial phenomenon of Arabia, nomadism.

3.'Idolatress', scripts and scriptuae
In his comments, Lombry refers to a statement by M. Abu Murwah al Qahtani that 'the term thamoud [sic] should be considered as meaning "idolatress", Le. "unknown to Islam-. It has been difficult to check this source, but leading aside the possible religious (even misogynist) tenor of the term 'idolatress', it is clear that such a scriptural or exegetic reference is merely a confirmation of antiquity of the Thamud, not the endorsement of an established religious/theological view of history, a sin that has particularly afflicted the Near-Eastern archaeology for a long time. Indeed, as pointed out by D. Potts, archaeology has been driven by a need to find Biblical parallels, leading to an excessive focus on Mesopotamian religious and literary aspects of the Near East (see Potts 1997: 303).

Perhaps the best approach to the Islamic texts as they relate to Thamud is to recognise their theological and historiographic nature and to limit their impact on empirical research, which Dhuyayb (2003) tries to do in his study of the Thamudic script. The best yet, regarding scriptural and exegetic references to Thamud, is J. Stetkevych's approach. In his brilliant study of the Thamudean legend of the Golden Bough, Stetckovysh combines literary, mythological, philosophical and archaeological information to read this Thamudic narrative as a mythopoeia, but one that is 'integrated into the decline and fall of sendentism and the growth of nomadism in Arabia' (Stetkevych 1996: 61).


ACHRATI, A. 2006. The story of the Arabian rock art: a Thamudic 'informant'. Rock Art Research 23: 153-164. [WP]

AGHALI-ZAKARA, M. 2003. Messages graphiques et gravures rupestres. La Lettre du RILB 9: 3-4. [WP]

AGHALI-ZAKARA, M. 2005. Retour sur l'association des gravures et inscriptions rupestres. La Lettre de l'AARS 28: 11-14. [LQ]

AGHALI-ZAKARA, M. and J. DROUIN 2007. Inscriptions rupestres libyco-berberes. Sahel nigero-malien. Sites d'Iwelen et d'Adar-en-Bukar. Moyen et Proche-Orient 3, Droz, Geneva. [LQ]

ARNAIZ VILLANA, A. and J. ALONSO GARCIA 2000. Egipcios, Bereberes, Guanches y Vascos. Editorial Complutense, Madrid. [WP]

LIFINSKI, E. 1997. Semitic languages. Outline of a grammar. Peeters Publishers and Department of Oriental Studies, Leuven. [AA]

MACDONALD, M. C. A. 1998. Kilroy in the desert. A database of Bedouin graffiti. CSAD Newsletter 6: 3-4. [WP]

MACDONALD, M. C. A. 2000. Reflections on the linguistic map of pre-Islamic Arabia. Arab Archaeology 11: 28-79. [AA]

MCCALL, D. F. 1998. The Afroasiatic language phylum: African in origin or Asian? Current Anthropology 39: 139-140. [AA]

MENDENHALL, G. E. 1984. The Bronze Age roots of pre-Islamic Arabic. In A. M. Abdella, S. Al-Sakkar and R. Mortel (eds), Pre-Islamic Arabia. Studies in the history of Arabia, pp. 95-102. King Saud University Press, Riyadh. [AA]

MOSCATI, S. (ed.) 1964. An introduction to the comparative grammar of the Semitic languages, phonology and morphology. Otto Harrassowitz-Wiesbaden, Wurzburg. [AA]

OWENS, J. 1998. Case and froto-Arabic, Part I. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 61: 51-73. [AA]

PARR, P. J. 1984. The present state of archaeological research in the Arabian Peninsula: achievements of the past, and problems for the future. In A. M. Abdella, S. Al-Sakkar and R. Mortel (eds), Pre-Islamic Arabia. Studies in the history of Arabia, pp. 43-53. King Saud University Press, Riyadh. [AA]

PICHLER, W. 1996. Libysch-berberische Inschriften auf Fuerteventura. Almogaren 27: 7-83. [WP]

PICHLER, W. 2005a. The Libyco-Berber inscriptions of the Canary Islands--misused as a playground for specialists and amateurs. La Lettre de l'AARS 28: 4-5. [WP]


DDeden said...

Perhaps thamudic related to tent pole erecting people (imad Arabic) that became stone erecting people, versus dome hut people in wooded areas that used flexible branches.

Turkish: Hoyuk
Hebrew: Hor
English: high, hill, heaven
Urartu: haldi

Alice C. Linsley said...

Very interesting idea. The tent pole was represented by the Y (waw) in early Semitic. Consider all the reulers or chiefs whose names begin with the Y: