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The term “Proto-Sinaitic” was first used by W.F. Albright to refer to the earliest inscriptions from Sinai written in a linear pictographic alphabet. These inscriptions were found about a century ago at Serabit el-Khadim, a copper and turquoise mining area on the Sinai Peninsula. This term is useful to distinguish these inscriptions from the later inscriptions found in the vicinity (e.g., Nabatean inscriptions) or from the earliest alphabetical inscriptions discovered in Palestine (called “Proto-Canaanite” inscriptions).
The Proto-Sinaitic script is a consonantal alphabet (abjad), i.e., consonantal phonemes were notated by means of mono-consonantal graphemes, without indicating the vowels. The direction of the writing is not always certain.
More than thirty Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions have been found. Some are very short (three, four signs), some are longer.
Due to the lack of stratified archaeological contexts for these inscriptions, absolute dates are under discussion. The majority of the scholars places the earliest of them in 18th-17th century BC (e.g., Sass 1988, 135-144; Hamilton 2006), but there are also some other scholars who place them in 16th-15th century BC (e.g. Albright), or still later (Sass 2004-05).
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Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions were mainly chance finds made by archaeologists engaged in Egyptology excavations. The first report of graffiti of an unknown script in Sinai dates to the end of the 19th century. Petrie discovered some new inscriptions during the 1904-05 excavations at Serabit el-Khadim (Petrie 1906). Gardiner (1916) later attempted the first decipherment of this new script and concluded that these Sinai inscriptions were alphabetic and that they were linked to Egyptian hieroglyphic signs on the basis of acrophony. This first significant discovery was accepted shortly after and it is still considered valid. Another few inscriptions were found in the 1920-30s (Butin 1932), in the 1950s (Gerster 1961), in the decades after 1950 (Beith-Arieh 1980), and recently (cf. Dalix 2012). The Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions are usually numbered according to the order of discovery (except the most recent finds) starting with the catalogue of Gardiner 1916 (cf. also Sass 1988).
Most of these inscriptions were found in the district of Serabit el-Khadim at southern Sinai (cf. Sass, 1988, 9). In recent times, inscriptions from Timna (Wimmer 2010) and wadi el-Hol (Darnell, et al. 2005) have been included in the corpus of the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions.
Gardiner (1916) first attempted to decipher this new script. Based on the similarity to Phoenician letters and hieroglyphic signs, he suggested that these Sinai inscriptions were alphabetic and that they were linked to Egyptian hieroglyphic signs based on acrophony. In 1948, Albright presented important research on these inscriptions, including a more comprehensive attempt at deciphering than Gardiner’s. In 1966 he published a revised version of his work in which he maintained he had identified 23 of the 27 signs considered to be the entire inventory of this alphabetic script.
The poor conservation of the inscriptions, their brevity and the absence of separation marks between two grammatical units all strongly penalize decipherment.
However, all scholars believe that the Proto-Sinaitic signs are closely connected to Egyptian hieroglyphics (and hieratic) and that their phonetic values derived from acrophony, i.e., the phonetic value of signs derived from the first sound of the word represented by the sign itself, as they were pronounced at that time. For example the sign depicting a hand is used to denote the /k/ sound because the word “palm (of a hand)” was pronounced /kapp/.
Recent attempts at a complete deciphering of proto-Sinaitic signs have been made by G.J. Hamilton (2006) and L.D. Morenz (2019).