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The Naked Archaeologist, the Origin of the Alphabet, and Scholarly Responsibility

15th September 2005

The Naked Archaeologist

I did it. I took a break from the “beginning of the semester course prep madness” and watched the second episode of the “Naked Archaeologist.” For those unaware, the “Naked Archaeologist” is not the name of a new adult cable channel. It’s a documentary series that was made for VisionTV (a religious cable channel up here in Canada). The series is produced, directed, and hosted by Simcha Jacobovici and, according to some promo material, it “shows viewers Biblical archaeology like they’ve never seen it before.” According to Jacobovici, the series “unzips archaeology and makes it naked.”

I noted its forthcoming release back at the beginning of August here, and it received some (mostly negative) attention among bibliobloggers in late August (see Christopher Heard’s evaluation of the news release here — make sure to look at his comments for an interesting interaction with an individual who worked with Jacobovici, and Jim Davila noted it here).

Simcha Jacobovici examining an early
alphabetic inscription in the mine at Serabit el-Khadem.

The episode I watched was entitled, “Who Invented the Alphabet?” and it aired on 12 September 2005 on VisonTV. I have to confess that it was entertaining. Unlike many documentaries, the “Naked Archaeologist” is quick-paced (even frenetic at times) and has a music video feel to it with short takes, interesting shot compositions, and clever editing. This included frequent cuts to 1950s black and white movies or to a modern day Toronto graffiti artist named “Skam” (do you know the difference between a “tag,” a “throw up,” and a “masterpiece”? Now I do!). The host is unconventional, but funny. It is not your run of the mill documentary with a deep-voiced narrator with an English accent (not that I have anything against English accents!).

So in regards to form, I give the episode thumbs up. Now as far as content is concerned…

The Origin of the Alphabet

In regards to content, my evaluation has to be mixed, if not leaning towards negative and downright misleading. On the one hand much of the information represented the standard scholarly views on the origins of the alphabet. Perhaps, most interesting was the reporting on the early alphabetic inscriptions discovered at Serabit el-Khadem and Wadi el-Hol.

The inscription in the turquoise mine at Serabit el-Khadem.

Until the discovery at Wadi el-Hol, the earliest alphabetic inscriptions were found in an ancient turquoise mine at Serabit el-Khadem in the Sinai. With some initially found by Palmer in 1869 and others by Petrie in 1905, these proto-Sinaitic inscriptions are difficult to decipher with the exception of the word ba-alat (female form of the Semitic god baal) which is taken by many to be a reference to the Egyptian goddess Hathor, the “Lady of the Turquoise.” They are also difficult to date with any precision; scholars typically put them between 1600-1500 BCE, though some date them as early as 1900 BCE.

In 1994 John and Deborah Darnell, John a professor at Yale and Deborah a student at University of Chicago, discovered two sets of alphabetic inscriptions at Wadi el-Hol (called the “valley of terror” by Jacobovici). These alphabetic inscriptions are the oldest ones found, with most dating them to 1800 BCE or earlier.

The inscription at Wadi el-Hol.

As with the other proto-Sinaitic inscriptions these are very difficult to decipher, though two Semitic words have been deciphered, “god” and “chief.” In the picture above, the letters “R” and “B”, Semitic REB, “chief” can be made out beginning the inscription on the right (image via The Glittering Eye). The episode is interspersed with an interview with John Darnell, who presents his theory that the inscription was written by Semitic mercenaries (based in part on another non-alphabetic inscription found in the same area that identities one “Bebi, general of the Asiatics”).

This discovery slightly modified our understanding of how the alphabet developed. Based on the inscriptions at Serabit el-Khadem, scholars thought that Semites invented the alphabet in ancient Syr.-Palestine with Egyptian influence. Now, it is argued that it was invented by Semites in Egypt around 2000 BCE.

Jacobovici’s (whacked-Out) Theory

So far, so good. But Jacobovici is not convinced with the explanations of Darnell and other archaeologists. Instead, he superimposes the biblical account of the exodus from Egypt on the inscriptions. Thus, it was Moses and the Israelites who are responsible for the inscriptions — and God himself is responsible for the invention of the alphabet! In Exodus 31:18 (cf. Deut 9:11) it is said that the two tablets of the covenant were written with the very “finger of God.” Jacobovici takes this to be the invention of the alphabet which the Israelites then took with them out of Egypt in the exodus. All things are possible, I guess.

To be fair, Jacobovici is not the first to propose a connection between the inscriptions at Serabit el-Khadem and the Israelites (see BAR 7.5 [1981]) and many have identified Serabit el-Khadem as the biblical Dophkah (Num 33:12-13) where the Israelites are reported to have stayed on their way to Palestine. But Jacobovici’s superficial juxtaposition of the inscriptional evidence and the biblical account of the exodus is problematic even for the most conservative biblical scholars. The chronological problems alone make Jacobovici’s theory very, very unlikely. Even a conservative dating would have Joseph delivered by his brothers into Egyptian bondage well after the invention of the alphabet, let alone the exodus from Egypt under Moses. (I don’t even need to say what the majority of critical scholars would say about Jacobovici’s theory, though it would probably be something like, “poppycock!”)

Jacobovici is not an archaeologist, a biblical scholar, or a linguist. That in and of itself is fine. I wouldn’t expect there would be many — if any — producers, directors, or hosts that would be. The problem as I see it is that Jacobovici doesn’t take the views of the experts seriously enough, and he doesn’t even entertain any weaknesses with his own views. (And I really don’t like the fact that he is crawling around in archaeological sites and touching ancient inscriptions with his greasy hands!) Perhaps I am silly for expecting more. That being said, I would show this episode to an undergraduate class since it would be an entertaining introduction to the origins of the alphabet and to how not to do archaeology.

Scholarly Responsibility

In terms of scholarly responsibility, I think that we as scholars (if I can use the term loosely!) have to do more than just criticize popular presentations of our disciplines. It’s easy to criticize the popular media’s reporting of biblical studies (I know I have done my share of it!). Reporters often misrepresent or misunderstand their sources, documentaries often pander to sensational theories, and the public appears to lap it all up. I don’t think that we as academics can do much to prevent how our views are presented (Even in this episode John Darnell had the opportunity to present his views, but he was never given the chance to interact with Jacobovici’s take on things). What we need to do, IMHO, is learn how to “spin” our research and bridge the gap between the academy and the everyday world ourselves. We need to team up with popular writers, directors, marketers, etc., and tell our perspectives in a way that is compelling and interesting. And we need to take the time to do this important task.

Based on this one episode, the “Naked Archaeologist” isn’t that bad. It’s entertaining and informative, but it also provides a venue for another half-baked theory that wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny in any undergraduate course. And as such, it could prove useful as a starting point for a larger discussion.

One could hope some of the other episodes will do better, though I wouldn’t bet on it!

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