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The alphabet is the singlemost important and enduring contribution the Canaanite culture has given to later civilization. The simple phonetic alphabet enabled the spread of literacy to the masses, rather than keeping it in the hands of the educated scribes.

The earliest writing, dating to the end of the 4th millennium BCE, has been found in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Writing involves the use of a system of signs or symbols to represent the spoken language. In Mesopotamia, scribes recorded commercial transactions on clay tablets. In Egypt, hieroglyphics were inscribed in stone and written on papyrus. The earliest writing took the form of pictographic signs in which pictures were used to represent words and objects.

In Mesopotamia, the pictographs became more stylized over time and eventually developed into wedge-shaped linear signs known today as cuneiform. The word cuneiform means "wedge-form" and is used to describe the wedge-shaped script formed by pressing a rectangular-ended stylus -- a writing stick made out of reed, wood, metal or bone -- into wet clay. Cuneiform signs could represent either whole words or phonetic syllables consisting of vowel-consonant groupings.

The cuneiform script was first developed by the Sumerians, but in the 3rd millennium BCE the Akkadians began using the script to write their language. The Akkadian language and the cuneiform script were used by the Babylonians and the Assyrians. Cuneiform continued to be used into the first century CE. In Egypt, writing took the form of hieroglyphics which, like cuneiform, began as a pictographic script and later developed into a system of syllables. Unlike cuneiform, however, the hieroglyphic pictographs were never stylized into linear symbols and use of hieroglyphics continued until the late 1st millennium BCE. At the same time, though, the Egyptians developed a cursive style of writing called hieratic in the earlier periods and demotic in later times.

Throughout Mesopotamia, Egypt and Canaan, writing was primarily rendered on stone, clay tablets or papyrus. Writing could be inscribed on almost any material, however, including potsherds, metal or wax pressed over a wooden board to form a writing tablet. One other important medium for writing was the cylinder seal. Cylinder seals were cylinders made of a hard material like stone or baked clay, which were engraved with a design. When the seals were rolled over wet clay, they created an impression of the engraving. Cylinder seals were used to mark door locks and closed containers of goods, and were also used to seal legal documents or the clay envelopes containing the documents. They were generally associated with specific individuals and often carried inscriptions containing the name of their owner.

Aramaic and Ammonite Writing
on display at the Museum

Although writing began in the 4th millennium BCE, alphabetic writing was a much later development. In contrast to the earlier writing systems, alphabetic writing consists of a system of signs which each represent a single sound of speech, rather than syllables or whole words.

The earliest known alphabetic inscriptions are called Proto-Canaanite and date from 1700 - 1500 BCE. Proto-Canaanite, which may have been an adaptation of Egyptian hieroglyphics, developed into the first true alphabetic writing system: Phoenician. The Phoenicians occupied an area that is part of modern Lebanon, Syria and Israel. Their 22 letter alphabet consisted of pictures of objects but, rather than using the pictures to represent whole words as with pictographs, each letter represented the first sound of the word for the object. The Phoenician alphabet, like earlier Egyptian hieroglyphics, included only consonants, not vowels. This alphabet developed into old Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek and, eventually, the Roman alphabet we use today.

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