During the 14th and 13th centuries B.C.E., many of the royal scribes in the Canaanite coastal city of Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra in Syria) were trained in a unique form of the wedge-shaped cuneiform script. Unlike the normal cuneiform script, which includes hundreds of signs, the new Ugaritic script is made up of only a couple dozen.

After studying the script, scholars realized that Ugaritic is, in fact, an “alphabetic” cuneiform script that adapted the techniques of cuneiform writing (i.e., clay tablets, stylus and wedge-shaped signs) to an alphabetic system. Thirty cuneiform characters were used to write all sorts of documents, from letters to literary texts.

Toward the end of the Late Bronze Age, the Ugaritic alphabet spread to Canaan. Single tablets in this special cuneiform script have been found at Canaanite Beth Shemesh, Taanach, Nahal Tabor and other locations.

In Canaan, during the 13th and 12th centuries B.C.E., two alphabetic writing systems lived side by side: the cuneiform Ugaritic alphabet, practiced by educated scribes in the urban centers, and the “script of the caravaneers” born in the mines of Serabit el-Khadem and practiced occasionally and in a limited form (mostly for writing names) by the non-urban Canaanite populations who inhabited the hill country and the urban fringes.

Does this mean that the alphabet was invented again, independently, by the learned scribes in Ugarit, several hundred years after the Canaanite miners of Serabit had already come up with the same idea?

The answer is no. The sophisticated scribes of Ugarit only domesticated the brilliant traveling innovation of the miners and caravaneers of Serabit that they somehow learned. The scribes of Ugarit “translated” what probably looked to them like weird iconic (pictorial) signs into their own “civilized” wedge-shaped script.

The proof that we are not dealing with an independent alphabetic invention is twofold. First, the order of the cuneiform alphabetic signs is essentially the same as the order of the iconic Proto-Canaanite alphabetic signs. Second, the names of the alphabetic cuneiform signs go back to the iconic meanings of the signs of the Proto-Canaanite script.1 In other words, the names of these wedge-shaped signs are very similar to the names of the Proto-Canaanite pictorial letters, although the Ugaritic cuneiform is not pictorial at all. All this is evidenced in abecedaries like this one found in Ugarit.

During the “translation” process, the wedge characters of the Ugaritic script renounced the iconic relationship between the name of the letter and its appearance. In this way, the mnemonic power of the Proto-Canaanite alphabet was completely lost to the Ugaritic scribes.

Ultimately, the cuneiform alphabet of Ugarit disappeared from the historical stage, probably during the 12th century B.C.E. It ceased to exist a few decades after the city-based schools, scribes and institutions that promoted it vanished with the fall of the great Late Bronze Age civilizations.