Phoenicians in Utah

In the summer of 1983 I was becoming seriously interested in the Epigraphic Society and the work it was doing.   I had found a subject profoundly worth attention, and a group of people I could genuinely look up to.  That summer I signed on for a conference in Salt Lake City, and for an extended field trip to eastern Utah.  The trip was to the Fremont site located in the northeastern corner of the state. 

Most archeologists would admit there is not much known for sure about the Fremont culture.  They are believed to have been a hunting and gathering society, which appeared from nowhere and which vanished for reasons unknown.  They lived in various parts of the Great Basin from sometime around 500 BCE until as recently as 500 years ago.   While they were here, they created a great deal of art work painted on the sides of cliffs, as well as a few smaller artifacts.  Although mainly hunter-gatherers, they are given credit for growing corn and for making pottery.  

There has been a lot of speculation among epigraphers that the Fremont may have been related to a Middle Eastern culture.  This idea is based on a similarity in style in their artwork, as well as the use of particular symbols often found in Egypt and North Africa. 

I was intrigued by the Fremont murals.  They seemed to be trying to tell us something, in as powerful a voice as they could muster.  It was as if we were looking at a huge signed headed "READ THIS," but written in a forgotten language. 

For some reason, I was especially intrigued by one large rock painting which seemed to demand attention.  This is what it looked like:

Here we have a trapezoid-shaped humanoid figure, placed about 100 feet above the valley floor, drawn on a sheer rock wall.  The artist must have either used a wood scaffold or dangled from a rope.  The figure is pecked into the rock surface.  That is, a small, hard stone was pounded with a hammer to remove a surface layer of rock a little at a time, revealing a lighter color beneath.  This must have taken many days (the figure is about life-size).

Now please examine the two symbols on either side of the trapezoid man.  Here are close-ups:


These two details are what most intrigued me.  No one in our group had any ideas about their meaning.  The symbol on the left (the figure's right) reminded me of a Chinese ideogram.  I quickly rejected this idea on the grounds there are no other symbols in the area that look Chinese.  The other symbol is a "Y" shape on a horizontal platform.  There is a dot on each side, with a row of four dots on the right.  Usually dots like these indicate numbers when found in pictographs.  Also notice the man's left hand.  This might be seen as simply a crude representation of a hand - except that it has six fingers.  Also, notice how it's formed - a cross with an arc across it, and another line coming from the arc.  This looked deliberate to me.  The other hand is less clear, but is formed in a similar manner, except it has only five fingers. 

Another thing to notice - the object above and to the right of the "Y."  It's shaped like a bowl or semicircle with a rectangle above.  Does this look to you like a sailing ship?  The more I stare at it, the more it resembles a ship.  There's even a natural, horizontal fracture in the rock which could represent the waterline.  But then, I must admit, my imagination may be getting away with me. 

The "Y" symbol looked familiar - I had a feeling I had seen something like it before.  In fact, it is found in numerous other places around this rock art site.  Here is one typical panel:

Here the symbol is repeated three times.  Each has a single dot on each side, while each has a semicircle composed of nine dots above.  In some other places in this area, the sign is found singly.  (One member of our group remarked facetiously that they probably represented champagne glasses, with bubbles rising.)  

I came away feeling somehow dissatisfied that none of our epigraphic experts could read the writing on these walls.  This particular symbol - the "champagne glass" stuck in my mind.  I continued reading journals and publications on epigraphy and archeology.  My attention was drawn to other subjects, but I never quite forgot the champagne glasses.  They were to remain a mystery, to me at least, for the next six years.  In 1989 I received my copy of Volume 18 of ESOP, or Epigraphic Society Occasional Publications.  In this volume was an article by Dr Ali Akbar Bushiri, of Bahrain University.  

Dr Bushiri is a real scientist, who examines the evidence rather than relying on the opinions of others.  The title of his article in ESOP was The Reconstructive Writing System of the Dilmun Culture.  The civilization of Dilmun, or Tilmun, was located in what is now Bahrain.  When Dr Bushiri began working, not much was known about that society.  Other experts were of the opinion that Dilmun did not have a written language, and that it was no older than 2400 BCE.  Dr Bushiri found a written language in surviving Dilmun seals and was able to show how it evolved from simple picture writing, to ideograms and finally to cuneiform on clay tablets.  And he maintained that Dilmun must be at least a thousand years older than previously thought.  

It was in Dr Bushiri's article that I finally found my champagne glasses.  Here is one example:

This symbol represents the name "Inanna."  In the pantheon of ancient Sumer and Dilmun, Inanna was the goddess of love and fertility, among other qualities.  In other regions she is known as Ishtar, Isis, Venus, Tanith, Aphrodite.  She has numerous aspects and is a complex and interesting goddess.   Dr Bushiri refers to a "reconstructive" writing system, because symbols are built up from simpler basic elements to form compound words.  In this case, there are three elements - a circle, meaning "sky," a triangle, meaning "female," and three half circles which together mean "mountains."  Thus, we get "Lady, Queen of the mountains in Heaven."  

The various elements melt together to form a single sign.  The three half circles become a single crescent.  The triangle turns into a vertical bar, while the circle remains intact.  This is not the only symbol for Inanna.  In fact, as of the time of writing his ESOP article Dr Bushiri had discovered 52 separate signs for the same name. Here's another example:

In this case, the circle meaning "sky" has been replaced with a horizontal bar, which has evolved from the grid sign meaning "temple," or "worship."  Thus, "Worship of the Lady of the mountain."