Semitic Script Symbols in Early Egypt - Part I

In June, 2002, Edwin van den Brink approached the Egyptian Electronic Forum (EEF) with an inquiry concerning Proto- and Early Dynastic potmarks. He also approached the University of Chicago Egyptian Discussion Forum with the same inquiry: Proto- and Early Dynastic potmarks: script, pottery-workshop denotation, or administrative device? He expressed a desire to find "a forum to discuss the meaning and function of pottery-incised marks/signs (potmarks).

Refer to



For the core of his work refer to his article, Corpus and Numerical Evaluation of the "Thinite" Potmarks, The Followers of Horus, Studies Dedicated to Michael Allen Hoffman, Edited by Renee Friedman and Barbara Adams, Egyptian Studies Association Publication No. 2, Oxbow Monograph 20, 1992.

I replied to his inquiry, stating my desire to learn more about early Egyptian writing, and offering to comment on his work. In return he kindly sent me a copy of his article, and two other short papers. He looked forward to my views, and any added thoughts I might have.

I was struck by the fact that a substantial number of symbols were identical to Semitic script symbols found around the Mediterranean much later in time, 1000 to 600 BC. The potmarks from Egypt were from around 3,000 BC. This was a time difference of at least 2,000 years.

However, I later discovered that other writing systems also carried many of these symbols, dating as far back as 5,000 BC. Before going on to the potmarks of ancient Egypt I shall briefly mention these other marks or writing which appear in earlier times.

Markings on Bone

Alexander Marshack, Roots of Civilization, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, 1972, set the standard for reporting markings on bone. However, none of his results showed symbols that would be unquestioned as carrying a symbolic significance related to human communication.

For example, the world's oldest engraving is on an ox rib from Pech de l'Azé in the Dordogne region, dating to the early part of the Riss glaciation. This bone carries many other markings, most of which were probably due to naturally caused damage. The bone is nearly 17 centimeters long and may date to about 200,000 BC. Photo: Evan Hadingham, Secrets of the Ice Age: The World of the Cave Artists, Walker and Company: New York, 1979. See also a copy of this on the web at http://www.hominids.com/donsmaps/cavepaintings2.html

engraving old oxbone

Coming much farther down in time we find another example. This is from the Grotte de Belvis (Aude), recent higher Magdalenien era, 12,270 ± 270 BP. A crane was engraved on a section of bone (length: 13.5 cm). We might visualize the return of spring or the arrival of autumn in this depiction of a large migratory bird. But this is not symbolic representation.

Next is an example from a prehistoric cave in Isturitz, Basses-Pyrenees, France.  These caves were inhabited from 80,000 to 15,000 years ago. A lion carved in reindeer antler, from T. G. E. Powell, Prehistoric Art, New York, Praeger, 1966.

cave lion

Note the markings at the top of both front and back legs, what some may call arrows. These markings carry symbolic significance in later languages, as I shall show, but we cannot say that they do so here, since they are in isolation.

Here is an example of a bone from the Upper Palaeolithic period, dating perhaps to 20,000 BC, presented by Alexander Marshack, pages 166 and 315. This was found at the Abri Mege, Dordogne. The bone also contains a fish, a seal's tail, and a block of notation marking three lunar months.

Marshack believed this was an image of a goddess with a tiny head, double angular shoulders, breasts, two three-fingered hands, a serpentine decoration on both sides along the length of the image, and at the bottom an enlarged vulva. The circular image above the vulva might represent either a hymen or a belly-button.

In the center are two rectangular images with a line down the middle of what might be symbolic representation of a letter or sound. Again, this is in isolation; without context we do not know what they might mean.

The meander or zigzag line is probably the oldest symbol. This simple design has had global currency and has established itself in many writing systems, often with similar meanings and sometimes with astronomic significance.


This sign is a well known in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, with the meaning of water. (See Egyptian Grammar, page 490, Alan Gardiner, Griffith Institute, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, Third Edition, 1994.)

This cave painting shows its early date, Upper Paleolithic. Note that there are other symbols in this photograph that could be interpreted as writing. As I shall show all three symbols are found in later Semitic scripts.

These are examples of prehistoric markings dating back many thousands of years. I shall now go on to more substantial evidence for writing.