Archaeologists have identified an entire sentence in Canaanite engraved on an ivory comb that dates from 1700 BC.
The comb was unearthed at Tel Lachish in Israel back in 2017 by a team from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU) and Southern Adventist University in the United States.
At the time, the shallow nature of the inscriptions meant that any identification went unnoticed, until a subsequent post-processing in 2022 revealing text that has now been deciphered by Semitic epigraphist, Dr. Daniel Vainstub, at Ben Gurion University (BGU).
The comb measures roughly 3.5 by 2.5 cm and has six thick teeth on the side that was used to untangle knots in the hair, while the other side with 14 fine teeth, was used to remove lice and their eggs, much like the current-day two-sided lice combs.
On the comb are 17 Canaanite letters in an archaic form from the first stage of the invention of the alphabet script. They form seven words in Canaanite, reading: “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.”
“This is the first sentence ever found in the Canaanite language in Israel. There are Canaanites in Ugarit in Syria, but they write in a different script, not the alphabet that is used till today. The Canaanite cities are mentioned in Egyptian documents, the Amarna letters that were written in Akkadian, and in the Hebrew Bible.
The comb inscription is direct evidence for the use of the alphabet in daily activities some 3700 years ago. This is a landmark in the history of the human ability to write,” said Pofessor Yosef Garfinkel.
Ancient combs were made from wood, bone, or ivory. Ivory was a very expensive material and likely an imported luxury object. As there were no elephants in Canaan during that time period, the comb likely came from nearby Egypt—factors indicating that even people of high social status suffered from lice.
The research team analysed the comb itself for the presence of lice under a microscope and photographs were taken of both sides. Remains of head lice, 0.5–0.6 mm in size, were found on the second tooth
Despite its small size, the inscription on the comb fills in gaps and lacunas in our knowledge of many aspects of the culture of Canaan in the Bronze Age. For the first time, researchers have an entire verbal sentence written in the dialect spoken by the Canaanite inhabitants of Tel Lachish.
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Header Image Credit : IAA