The Onomastic Evidence for Bronze-Age West Semitic

By O'Connor, M. | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, July-September 2004 | Go to article overview

The Onomastic Evidence for Bronze-Age West Semitic


O'Connor, M., The Journal of the American Oriental Society


1. BRONZE-AGE WEST SEMITIC

The history of the West Semitic family begins in earnest in the late second millennium, more or less around the start of the Syro-Palestinian archeological period known as the Iron Age. (1) It is around 1200 B.C.E. that the Canaanite branch of the family (most importantly, Hebrew and Phoenician) begins to be documented in the epigraphic record, and not long thereafter are dated the earliest Aramaic and Old South Arabian texts; the Arabic and Ethiopic branches follow during the first millennium C.E. In all these cases, except Old South Arabian, archeologically recovered texts show some degree of correlation with traditions preserved in manuscript form. Prior to 1200 B.C.E. West Semitic presents a different picture: all the sources are archeologically recovered, and none of them shows a straightforward relation to literary traditions. The linguistic evaluation of the remains of Bronze-Age West Semitic (BAWS) is thus an area of intensive research and contentious discussion. Off in a quiet corner by themselves sit several heaps of onomastic evidence: they are assumed to belong somewhere and in some way. The evaluation of them as evidence for Bronze-Age West Semitic is not wildly controversial, but neither is it settled.

The primary sources from which these several heaps are drawn are the publications, some of them over a century old, of texts excavated or extracted from Old and Middle Babylonian sites in Western Asia and of synchronous texts from Egypt. The pride of place here must go to the series Archives royales de Mari, a set produced over the span of half a century (so far) by French and Francophone scholars. The heaps themselves are variously gathered up in major publications. The most imposing is Assyriological Studies 21, surely the largest single volume regularly used by any West Semitist, one of I. J. Gelb's several late masterworks. Situated close to AS 21 are Buccellati's dissertation on Ur III Amorites, Huffmon's dissertation on Mari Amorite, Zadok's contribution to the Hallo festschrift, and Streck's Habilitation, along with various other studies of so-called Amorite material. (2) Although the term Amorite is generally reserved for names from the Old Babylonian and earlier periods (roughly, the first half of the second millennium), there is no distinct break between such names and names from the Late Bronze Age (roughly, the second half of the second millennium). Other gatherings of BAWS names are Grondahl's dissertation on the names from Ugarit, Hess's dissertation on the Amarna names, Sivan's dissertation on Late-Bronze West Semitic vocabulary, Pruzsinszky's dissertation on Emar names, and various other works. (3) The heaps betray devoted labor and careful attention, and yet the evaluation of the material in them remains incomplete.

In order to pursue this evaluation it will be useful to review the entire range of materials relevant to Bronze-Age West Semitic. The bulk of the evidence is Late Bronze or Middle Babylonian, although there is ample material from the Old Babylonian period and some from the Ur III period (late third millennium). (4) The largest single body of evidence comes from the Late Bronze site of Ugarit. (5) The evidence comprises texts written in the Ugaritic alphabetic script, as well as texts written in Mesopotamian cuneiform, primarily in a form of Middle Babylonian, and some texts written in other writing systems. (6) The alphabetic texts are of various sorts, including poetic texts and ritual texts that include poetic material, as well as letters and administrative documents. It is the working assumption of students of Ugaritic that the corpus of alphabetic material represents more or less a single language, although there are disparities across the corpus.

The study of Ugaritic alphabetic texts is aided by some cuneiform material, and the pattern of the cuneiform contribution to Ugaritic study is one that is repeated over and over for Bronze-Age West Semitic.

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