Today in our survey of the objects in the CREWS exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, we’re looking at this bronze Phoenician arrowhead, on loan from the British Museum.


It probably dates from the eleventh century BC and comes from what is now Lebanon. It’s inscribed on both sides in the Phoenician alphabet. It reads from right to left:

ḥṣ ʾdʿ

bn bʿlʾ

Arrowhead of ʾAdʿa, son of Bʿalʾa.

If you’ve looked at my post on the Ugaritic tablet, this might look quite similar in terms of language and how we transcribe it. Although their alphabets look very different, Ugaritic and Phoenician are very closely related and their writing systems work on exactly the same principles. Neither of them write vowels and they include a lot of the same sounds. The ones here you may not be familiar with are the ḥ and ṣ with dots beneath, which are emphatic versions of those sounds. The sign transliterated as ʾ represents the glottal stop ʾaleph, and ʿ is an ʿayin, a sound that doesn’t exist in English and is quite hard to describe. It’s pronounced deep at the back of the throat and is still a feature of modern Semitic languages like Arabic. It’s clear that Ugaritic was developed by someone familiar with the principles of the Phoenician alphabet, even though they chose to base their signs on cuneiform.

Both Ugaritic and the Phoenician alphabet emerged out of an extended period of experimentation with alphabetic writing in the Levant and Egypt. The earliest forms of the Semitic alphabetic writing system, known as Proto-Sinaitic, have been found in Sinai and the Egyptian desert and probably date to around the beginning of the second millennium BC. It’s possible they had antecedents stretching back even further.

Proto-Sinaitic inscription from Egypt’s Wadi el-Hol

These early inscriptions are mostly undeciphered, but they seem to be in a variety of Canaanite (i.e. an early language of the Semitic family) and work on the same consonantal principle as the Phoenician and Ugaritic scripts. Several of the sign forms seem to be inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphics and hieratic. We only have a fairly sketchy understanding of how the alphabet developed over the next thousand years or so. We have just a few examples, coming from various places in the southern Levant and widely separated in time. It seems clear that there were centuries of experimentation and diverse local forms of alphabetic writing, and that both the Ugaritic and Phoenician systems developed out of this.

Sass 1988 175-176 Isbet Sartah ostracon
An ostracon from Izbet Sartah, with early alphabetic inscription. Picture from Sass 1988 – The Genesis of the Alphabet and its Development in the Second Millennium B.C.

The eleventh century is around the earliest point where we can recognise something in Lebanon that can properly be called the Phoenician alphabet; it’s the very cusp of the emergence of a relatively standardised script that would be adopted for official use. About a century later we get the first Phoenician inscriptions in stone, with a set of royal inscriptions from the harbour city of Byblos.

It’s curious that one of our first surviving uses of the Phoenician alphabet is to write names on arrowheads. What’s going on here? I have to admit this makes me think of that Blackadder episode where Baldrick is carving his name on a bullet because they say somewhere out there, there’s a bullet with his name on it.

We can’t rule out one Phoenician thinking along the same lines as Baldrick, but there are actually rather a lot of these inscribed arrowheads. The chances of a whole bunch of Phoenicians all having the same cunning plan are, as Baldrick might say, very small indeed. Ultimately, the purpose of these arrowheads is a bit of a mystery. Given that they’re metal to begin with, and that people have gone to the trouble adding an inscription to them carefully, it’s probably unlikely that they were for actual combat use. One idea is that they may be for belomancy – divination based on the flight of arrows.

The arrowhead being installed in our display, with hands for scale.

It’s unlikely that in the eleventh century people in Phoenicia were only using writing to put their names on arrowheads, even for magical or ritual purposes. Instead we should probably imagine that there was also a certain amount of writing on perishable materials like wax or papyrus – which, after all, are better suited for a linear writing system like the Phoenician alphabet than metal or stone.

This object is a glimpse, then, of a very important but enigmatic period in the development of alphabetic writing. The inscription itself doesn’t say very much, but there’s a lot going on in the background that informs how we understand this artefact and others like it.


~ Philip Boyes (CREWS Project Research Associate)



P.S. This is our 100th blog post – thank you for reading and being interested in our work! If you ever have comments, requests or just want to ask us something, please do get in touch and let us know, and in the meantime we’re looking forward to our next 100 posts.


10 thoughts on “CREWS Display: A Phoenician Arrowhead

    1. Well that didn’t work. Let’s try again.
      Is it possible that Ad’a is the name of the enemy commander? We have both Greek and Roman examples of sling-bullets with the name of the enemy written on them (so very literally bullets with their name on them)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. They make me think of the sling bullets too. I think there’s a difference though – the inscriptions on these arrowheads look to me like they’re executed very carefully at or around the time of manufacture, whereas lead sling bullets are, I think (haven’t seen that many of them but there are some Cypriot ones), graffiti that are much less carefully scratched on. Also, the formula ‘Arrowhead – person’s name + patronym’ suggests an ownership inscription even though in Phoenician you don’t get any genitive morphology. That’s my thinking anyway – Philip may have other thoughts.
        ~ Pippa


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