It is a simple sentence that embodies the hopes and fears of the Fathers in the modern age as much as the Canaanite Bronze Age had the two-edged ivory comb on which the words appear.
It is believed to be the oldest known sentence written in the First Alphabet, and the inscription on the fancy piece reads: “I hope this tusk kills hair and beard lice.”
The comb was discovered in Lachish, a Canaanite city-state in the second millennium BC and the second most important city in the kingdom of Judah, and indicates that humans have tolerated lice for thousands of years and that even the wealthy were not spared the infestation of lice.
“The inscription is very humane,” said Professor Joseph Garfinkel, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who helped direct the excavations of Lachish. “You have a comb and on the comb you have a desire to eliminate hair and beard lice. Nowadays we have all these modern sprays, medicines and poisons. In the past they did not have those.”
The comb, which measures 3.5 cm by 2.5 cm, was discovered at the site in 2017, but surface reliefs were only spotted in December of last year. Analysis of the signs confirmed that the writing is the Canaanite script, the first alphabet that was invented about 3800 years ago.
Efforts to obtain an age for the comb through carbon dating have proven futile, but researchers believe they were made around 1700 BC. The comb was worn and lost its teeth, but the remaining stems show that it once had six teeth spaced for detangling on one side, and 14 teeth spaced narrowly for removing lice and eggs on the other side.
Further clues to the comb’s purpose emerged when researchers examined it under a microscope and identified the tough outer membranes of the half-millimeter nymph stages of head lice.
Researchers at Jerusalem Journal of Archeology.
Old combs were made of wood, bone, and ivory, but the latter were expensive imported luxuries. There were no elephants in Canaan at that time.
The world’s first writing systems originated in Mesopotamia and Egypt around 3200 BC, but they were not alphabetical. Christopher Rollston, professor of Northwest Semitic languages at George Washington University in the US, said they relied on hundreds of different signs to represent words or syllables, and thus required years to master.
Rolston said the first alphabet was invented around 1800 B.C. by Semitic speaking people who were familiar with the Egyptian writing system. Known as the Canaanite or early alphabet, the system has been 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 engraving is about ordinary life is especially remarkable,” said Rolston. “Throughout human history, lice have been a perennial problem. This inscription well reveals that even the rich and famous of antiquity were no exception to such problems. We can only hope that this patterned comb will be useful in doing what it says it was meant to do. – Uproot some of these pesky insects.”
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