College of Liberal Arts

A Towering Mystery Solved

When then-Harvard University Professor John Huehnergard and his wife and colleague Jo Ann Hackett first visited The University of Texas at Austin last spring, they couldn't help but notice the ancient Phoenician and Hebrew letters that adorn the Tower. After all, Hackett, a Hebrew scholar, and Huehnergard, who teaches Semitic linguistics and writing systems, have a natural curiosity for language.

Upon closer inspection, they discovered what generations of students have seen: five different gold-leafed alphabets — Egyptian hieroglyphics (although technically not considered an alphabet), Phoenician, Hebrew, Greek and Latin — totaling 113 letters on the 73-year-old building.

John Huehnergard
John Huehnergard and his students set out to solve the mystery of the Tower's letters.

When the couple joined The University of Texas at Austin's Department of Middle Eastern Studies in fall 2009, Huehnergard began to think about the letters again.

Thanks in part to a registration mix-up, he taught an unusually small undergraduate class of eight students. The class, "Visible Language," focused on the world's writing systems and gave him and his students the perfect opportunity to learn more about the iconic letters at the center of his new campus.

"In the middle of the fall semester I was walking past the building thinking about paper topics for the class and it hit me it would be fun to work on where these letters came from," Huehnergard says. "I had asked around, but the consensus seemed to be the same. People know a lot about the building, but nothing of the alphabets."

Huehnergard and his students traced the idea to William J. Battle (1870-1955), a well-respected professor whose strong influence on the campus design can still be seen today. It's hard to find a building or even a tree on campus he didn't touch in some way during his tenure as Classics professor, dean and interim president. Most notable among them was construction of the Main Building and its Tower, which Battle spearheaded.

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