Ancient South Arabian correspondence on wooden sticks: new radiocarbon data


  • Peter Stein
  • Tobias J. Jocham
  • Michael Josef Marx


Ancient South Arabian script, chronology, palaeography, epigraphy, radiocarbon analysis


One of the most disputed issues in the history of pre-Islamic Yemen is the absolute chronology of the epigraphic sources. Since reliable dates according to a fixed era are available only from inscriptions of the later periods, the chronological framework for the first millennium has been rather weak. The main argument in dating Ancient South Arabian inscriptions still remains palaeography. Against this background, the discovery in the 1970s of the everyday correspondence of the Sabaeans and their neighbours marks the beginning of significant progress, since this correspondence is written on wooden sticks, a material which is basically suitable for scientific dating methods, such as ¹⁴C (radiocarbon analysis). Unlike the amply attested monumental epigraphy from the region, the wooden support of the inscribed sticks for the first time enables absolute dating of particular texts, irrespective of their stratigraphy or contents. First analysis was carried out on objects from the collection of the Oosters Instituut in Leiden about ten years ago and published in 2013. This analysis revealed much chronological data but also raised a couple of questions. They mainly concern the starting point of the writing tradition in Ancient Yemen as well as its end, and thus immediately affect the historical discussion on the origin and fall of Ancient South Arabian civilization. It was mainly for this reason that a second attempt to use radiocarbon analysis has recently been made in the framework of the German-French collaboration project CORANICA, funded by ANR and DFG. Samples were taken from twenty-nine objects from the collection of the Bavarian State Library in Munich in 2014 and 2015. The results of these analyses are presented, and partly discussed, in this paper. They may help better to establish the palaeographical sequence of the Ancient South Arabian script and thus clarify some of the extant problems in the chronology of pre-Islamic Yemen.





How to Cite

Stein, P., Jocham, T. J., & Marx, M. J. (2016). Ancient South Arabian correspondence on wooden sticks: new radiocarbon data. Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies, 46, 263–277. Retrieved from

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