Unearthing Arabia: The Archaeological Adventures of Wendell Phillips

Language and Writing

The profusion of funerary, religious, and administrative inscriptions discovered in Timna and Wadi Beihan suggests the Qatabans were a highly literate culture. Scholars have classified the script as South Arabian. It contains twenty-nine letters and occurs in both a monumental and a cursive form. The absence of vowels has hampered modern understanding of the system of vocalization. Originally, the script could be written from right to left or from left to right, and at times the progression of letters switched direction in the middle of long passages. Later on, however, the preferred direction was from right to left. The script was current until the advent of Islam in the seventh century and was occasionally used to write Arabic, but it was soon abandoned in favor of the Arabic script. South Arabian still survives, however, in Ethiopian syllabary, a set of written characters that represents syllables.

Father Albert Jamme was a leading scholar in reading and recording the South Arabian script. Much of his work was done by painstakingly transcribing thousands of inscriptions. He and his workmen also made squeezes, a process whereby inscriptions carved into walls are covered with sheets of moist paper or latex to make a three-dimensional impression of the texts, as seen above.