It is a simple sentence that captures the hopes and fears of parents today as much as the Bronze Age Canaanite who owned the double-edged ivory comb on which the words appear.
Believed to be the oldest sentence written in the oldest alphabet, the inscription on the luxury item reads: “May this fang remove lice from the hair and beard.”
Unearthed at Lachish, a Canaanite city-state in the 2nd millennium B.C. C. and the second most important city of the kingdom of Judah, the comb suggests that humans have endured lice for thousands of years and that even the wealthiest were not spared from the terrible infestations.
“The inscription is very human,” said Professor Yosef Garfinkel, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who helped lead the Lachish excavations. “You have a comb and in the comb you have a desire to destroy hair and beard lice. Today we have all these sprays and modern medicines and poisons. In the past they didn’t have them.”
The comb, which measures 3.5cm by 2.5cm, was discovered at the site in 2017, but the surface carvings were only seen in December last year. Analysis of the marks confirmed that the writing was Canaanite script, the oldest alphabet, which was invented about 3,800 years ago.
Efforts to get an age for the comb from carbon dating proved futile, but researchers believe it was made around 1700 BC. The comb is worn and has lost its teeth, but the remaining stumps show that it once had six widely spaced teeth for removing tangles from hair on one side and 14 widely spaced teeth for removing lice and eggs on the other.
Further evidence of the comb’s purpose emerged when researchers examined it under a microscope and identified the tough outer membranes of the half-millimeter-long nymphal stages of head lice.
The letters on the comb spell out seven words that form the first fully deciphered sentence in a Canaanite dialect, written in Canaanite script, the researchers said in the Jerusalem Archeology Journal.
Ancient combs were made of wood, bone, and ivory, but the latter would have been an expensive imported luxury. There were no elephants in Canaan at that time.
The world’s first writing systems originated in Mesopotamia and Egypt around 3200 BC. C., but they were not alphabetical. They relied on hundreds of different signs to represent words or syllables, and as such took years to master, said Christopher Rollston, a professor of Northwest Semitic languages at George Washington University in the US.
The oldest alphabet was invented around 1800 BC. C. by Semitic-speaking people who were familiar with the Egyptian writing system, Rollston said. Known as Canaanite or early alphabetic, the system was used for hundreds of years, particularly in the Levant, and was standardized by the Phoenicians in ancient Lebanon. It became the basis for ancient Greek, Latin, and most modern languages in Europe today.
“The fact that this inscription is about ordinary life is especially fascinating,” Rollston said. “Throughout human history, head lice have been a perennial problem. And this inscription reveals very well that even the rich and famous of ancient times were not exempt from such problems. We can only hope that this inscribed comb has been useful in doing what it says it was supposed to do: remove some of these pesky bugs.”
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