Earliest Form of Writing, a Secret Visual Code, May Have Been Found in Israel

The images in the 6,000-year-old copper hoard from Nahal Mishmar are a code used by Chalcolithic metal workers, one scholar claims. Many colleagues are skeptical

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A sceptre decorated with heads of horned animals from the Nahal Mishmar hoard, made over 6,000 years ago
Sceptre with horned animals made over 6,000 years ago: Was this a form of code?Credit: Photo (c) The Israel Museum, Jerusalem/ by David Harris
Ariel David
Ariel David
Ariel David
Ariel David

A cache of copper artifacts made some 6,300 years ago may contain a secret code used by ancient Levantine metal workers, which would make this one of the earliest forms of primitive writing in the world. That’s the new and controversial theory of an Israeli researcher who believes he has deciphered the meaning of the exquisite but as-yet-enigmatic artifacts that were uncovered decades ago in a remote desert cave in Israel.

More than 400 copper objects were found in 1961, wrapped in a tattered mat in a cavern on the nearly inaccessible slopes of Nahal Mishmar, a seasonal stream that flows into the Dead Sea. 

The so-called Nahal Mishmar hoard was one of the greatest prehistoric finds in Israel and in the world. It revealed a previously unsuspected sophistication and advanced knowledge of metallurgy among the people who inhabited the Levant during the Chalcolithic, or Copper Age.

The treasure belonged to a culture that modern archaeologists have named Ghassulian – not because we have any idea what these people called themselves, but because it was first identified at a site in Jordan called Teleilat Ghassul.

Nahal Mishmar
Nahal MishmarCredit: Tammuz

Carbon 14 dating of the mat that held the Nahal Mishmar artifacts has shown that the hoard goes back to around 4300 B.C.E. and many of the myriad objects, shaped as bowls, maces, crowns and scepters, display a level of craftsmanship that was thought unthinkable for that period.

Most of the artifacts were produced using the lost-wax technique, a complex and time-consuming process. Even more surprisingly, analyses have shown they were made of then-unique alloys of copper with arsenic, antimony and other metals, which would have had to be sourced as far as Anatolia or the Caucasus.

Though most researchers agree the objects had some kind of ritualistic purpose, the hoard has remained somewhat of a mystery for archaeologists, who are hard pressed to explain what was the exact use of the artifacts, or what meaning can be ascribed to the motifs that decorate them.

Part of the enigma stems from the fact that the Ghassulians lived before recorded history and have left us no writings to tell us about themselves.

A mace head topped by a globular mass and a two-headed horned animal
A mace head topped by a globular mass and a two-headed horned animalCredit: Clara Amit, IAA

Or did they?

The depictions of horned animals, birds, human noses and other motifs found on the artifacts are not just random decorations or symbolic images, claims Nissim Amzallag, a researcher from the Department of Bible studies, Archeology and the Ancient Near East at Ben Gurion University.

Amzallag, who focuses on the cultural origins of ancient metallurgy, theorizes that these representations form a rudimentary three-dimensional code, in which each image symbolizes a word or phrase and communicates a certain concept.

In other terms, the Nahal Mishmar hoard should be seen as a precursor to the early writing systems that would emerge centuries later in Egypt and Mesopotamia, Amzallag says.

The researcher recently published his study of the hoard in Antiguo Oriente, a peer-reviewed publication of the Center of Studies of Ancient Near Eastern History at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina. 

Artifacts found at Nahal Mishmar, made over 6,000 years ago
Artifacts found at Nahal Mishmar, made over 6,000 years agoCredit: Clara Amit, IAA

Not as easy as A-B-C

In his work, Amzallag analyzes several key pieces in the hoard and speculates on the possible semantics of the iconography. Many of the depictions can be interpreted as logograms, that is, graphic symbols that represent a particular word or phrase, he says.

Logograms formed the basis of the earliest writing systems, such as Sumerian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics. In their simplest form, logograms could signify a word by resembling the physical object they were meant to represent, such as an ox or a stalk of wheat.

But when they had to convey more abstract concepts, ancient writing systems would turn to what linguists call the “rebus principle:” using a character, or phonogram, whose corresponding word sounds very similar to the complex idea that the writer is trying to communicate.

Nahal Mishmar, IsraelCredit: Google Maps

This trick is still commonly employed in rebus puzzles created using modern languages. For example, in English, the pronoun “I” can also be written by drawing the image of an eye.

The same logic was at work in the code of Nahal Mishmar, Amzallag says. For example, one of the most recurring decorative motifs in the artifacts is that of a two-headed or four-headed horned animal, possibly a juvenile ibex.

While there is no particular connection between ibexes and metallurgy, the West Semitic word used for young ungulates does sound very similar to the designation of “dust” and “ore” (in Hebrew 'ofer is a young deer and afar is dust). It is therefore possible that the young ibexes were a phonogram for the mineral ore that made up these very artifacts, and the fused bodies of the animals represented the need to mix two or more ores to create the alloys used in the Nahal Mishmar hoard, Amzallag suggests.

To give another example, the frequent representation of a human nose, “anp” in early Semitic languages, could be connected to its use as a verbal root to express the boosting of a fire by blowing air on it – an action that was a key part of the smelting process, the researcher says in the article. And further, Amzallag sees a semantic link between the representations of nesting birds and the craft of metal working itself because the term for nesting in early Semitic languages is similar to qayin – an archaic designation of metallurgy.

Not all the symbols that the scholar claims to have deciphered follow the rebus principle, and some are more mundane representations of physical phenomena. So, for example, he interprets the frequent depictions of round globular masses to represent the form that raw copper takes when it is heated.

If you haven’t guessed it already, all the 16 signifiers that Amzallag says he has decoded have a meaning connected to copper smelting and metal working. Ultimately, his paper ventures to “translate” the iconography of several of the artifacts, into what turns out to be something resembling a series of simple recipes on how to make the objects that compose the Nahal Mishmar hoard: take a certain number of different ores, crush them, place them on a very hot fire, cast tools from the molten metal.

But why would the super-skilled Ghassulian metal workers need to – ehm – “write down” such basic instructions?

At the time, the process of heating rocks and extracting metal from them was seen as a magical, almost divine activity, Amzallag explains, and those who engaged in it would have felt close to unlocking the secrets of the universe.

A round artifact, dubbed a 'crown,' decorated with two heads of a horned animal
A round artifact, dubbed a 'crown,' decorated with two heads of a horned animalCredit: Clara Amit, IAA

“The sun, for example, looks very much like a sphere of molten metal, so they would have felt that they understood what the sun is, and they could make a small sun of their own,” Amzallag tells Haaretz. “They thought they understood what the universe is made of, and would have felt like gods themselves.”

The knowledge of this divine craft would have been kept within a close circle of people, and shared only with a select few, he notes.

“It is a mysterious occupation whose secrets you don’t learn easily – it requires initiation and several rites of passage, and having a visual code is part of that,” Amzallag says. “They didn’t aim to create writing – they aimed to understand and represent what they were doing.”

Maybe it’s just a goat

Amzallag is not exactly a mainstream researcher and is known for his somewhat unorthodox theories. As reported in Haaretz last year, he has made waves by publishing studies that claim to show that YHWH, the God of the Israelites in the Bible, originated as a deity in the Canaanite pantheon worshipped initially by metal workers in the late Bronze and early Iron ages.

His new study on the Nahal Mishmar hoard is “highly speculative” and based on assumptions that are difficult to prove or disprove, says Dina Shalem, an archaeologist for Kinneret College and the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The first problem, one which Amzallag recognizes himself in the paper, is that the analysis only works if we agree that the Ghassulians spoke a Semitic language, and that we can decipher the supposed symbolism of Chalcolithic iconography using words that are similar to those appearing hundreds or thousands of years later in Semitic texts from the Bronze and Iron ages.

Artifacts found at Nahal Mishmar made of hippo teeth
Artifacts found at Nahal Mishmar made of hippo teethCredit: Hanay

“We don’t know enough to say what language they spoke,” says Shalem, who has dug multiple Chalcolithic sites across Israel. Archaeologically speaking, major cultural changes occurred in the Levant during the transition between the Copper and the Bronze Age, she notes.

“The burial customs, the architecture are completely different,” Shalem says. “Some things do display some continuity, but it’s hard to tell whether this applies to the language.”

Going deeper into the study, Shalem notes there could be other, equally valid interpretations of the Ghassulian iconography. For example, the figures that Amzallag sees as representations of young ibexes could well be goats. And the frequent doubling or quadrupling of bodies may not be connected to alloys and smelting at all, as it is a figurative motif that appears also in contexts not linked to metallurgy, such as in ossuaries.

“In earlier periods we find two-headed anthropomorphic figurines,” she says. “The doubling of something can simply be a way to emphasize its importance.”

Other colleagues are more inclined to give the study the benefit of the doubt. While he disagrees with some of the specific interpretations, the theory as a whole is solid, says Daniel Sivan, an emeritus professor of Semitic languages at Ben-Gurion University.

“He makes some very bold, controversial claims, but there is something to this theory that the origins of writing are connected to metallurgy,” Sivan tells Haaretz. “It’s a new and interesting concept and it deserved to be published.”

The earliest proto-writing?

But assuming the secret visual code did exist, is it right to identify it as the earliest form of proto-writing, as Amzallag suggests in his paper? And is it connected to the writing systems that developed later in the Middle East?

There are several, highly disputed finds that are even older that the Nahal Mishmar hoard and which carry symbols that some scholars have claimed could be the earliest known examples of writing. These include the Dispilio tablet, an engraved wooden tablet found in a lake in Greece and dated to around 5200 B.C.E., and the Tartaria tablets, engraved artifacts found in a Neolithic village in Romania. 

But the interpretation and dating of these and other finds is highly controversial. Most scholars agree that the first scripts were developed in Mesopotamia and Egypt at the dawn of the Bronze Age, around 3,200 B.C.E., more than a millennium after the Nahal Mishmar hoard was squirreled away for reasons unknown.

There are no obvious similarities between the two-dimensional ideograms of cuneiform or hieroglyphic and the purported three-dimensional visual code of Nahal Mishamar. This is true both in form and in function. While the code developed by the metal workers of the Levant would have been an elaborate equivalent of a secret handshake, the first ascertained writing systems of antiquity were likely created for financial reasons, such as the need to record amounts of goods and transactions.

Still, given that the unique alloys in the Nahal Mishar artifacts show that already in the Chalcolithic there was a trade network that allowed for the transfer of goods and knowledge over vast distances, it is possible that ideas like the rebus principle were first developed by the Ghassulian metal workers and later adopted by other civilizations in the region, Amzallag speculates.

“The eventuality of a relationship between the visual code developed first among the Ghassulians and later in Egypt and in Mesopotamia should not be ruled out,” he concludes in his paper.

While it cannot be ruled out, there is also little evidence supporting such a claim, as it is unlikely that the metal workers – the supposed keepers of this secret code – would travel so far and wide to spread it, counters Shalem.

“When you look at the trade and import of raw materials, such as metals coming from Turkey, things would move from hand to hand, from one trader to another,” she says. “It wasn’t a single person who traveled to Anatolia to procure the goods, and certainly it was not the metal workers themselves who did the travelling.”