An Ancient People’s Oldest Message: Get Rid of Beard Lice

Archaeologists in Israel unearthed a tiny ivory comb inscribed with the oldest known sentence written in an alphabet that evolved into one we use today.

A close-up view of a small ivory fragment held between two gloved fingers with markings on its side and small, visible comb teeth on its bottom edge.
A 3,700-year-old ivory comb found in southern Israel bears an inscription that reads, “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.”Credit…Menahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Image

The tiny ivory comb came from ancient ruins in central Israel and was about the size of a child’s thumb. A number of its teeth had snapped. It was so encrusted in dirt that the archaeologist who found it initially added it to a bag of assorted bones.

More than half a decade later, by a stroke of luck, scientists found letters faintly inscribed on the object: “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.”

“People kind of laugh when you tell them what the inscription actually says,” said Michael Hasel, an archaeologist at Southern Adventist University in Tennessee who was involved in the discovery of the comb.

But those words turned out to be anything but banal. Dr. Hasel and his colleagues dated the comb to around 1,700 B.C., which means that this appeal against lice is one of the oldest examples of the writing of Canaanites, an ancient Near Eastern people credited with developing the earliest forms of the alphabet that would evolve into the letters used in this newspaper today. As the scientists explain in an article published Wednesday in the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology, the 17 letters on the comb form the oldest full, decipherable sentence ever found in an early alphabetic script.

“I really think this is the most important object ever found in my excavations,” said Yosef Garfinkel, an archaeologist at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a co-author of the study who has unearthed evidence of King David’s reign during his career.

He paused, then added, with a hint of emotion in his voice: “This is the first sentence ever found in the alphabet.”

The earliest confirmed systems of human writing emerged around 3,200 B.C., with cuneiform in Mesopotamia and hieroglyphics in Egypt. These scripts had hundreds of letters and were largely pictorial. That made them very difficult to learn, but they spread around the Near East. At some point, probably close to 1,800 B.C., a new kind of writing appeared in the region that relied on only a few dozen letters that were repeated and shuffled around. Each letter related to a single basic sound, or phoneme.

The development of this early alphabet is not well understood. But Christopher Rollston, who studies the languages and writing systems of the Near East at George Washington University, said there was consensus that “the alphabet was invented by Semitic-speaking people who were familiar with the Egyptian writing system.”

An aerial view of the Tel Lachish site, with some roads and structures on a brown hill surrounded by farmland.
The Tel Lachish archaeological site where a Canaanite city once stood, about 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem.Credit…Menahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Several centuries later, around 1,100 B.C., these earliest alphabetic scripts were adopted by the Phoenicians, who strictly wrote from right to left and standardized the shape and stance of the letters. “There is a wide misconception in the general public that the Phoenicians invented the alphabet,” Dr. Rollston said. “They didn’t.”

The alphabet continued to evolve, from Phoenician to Old Hebrew to Old Aramaic to Ancient Greek to Latin, becoming the basis for today’s modern English characters. Dr. Garfinkel said that the DNA of the earliest alphabet could still be found in English and Hebrew. For instance, the letter “A” looks a bit like a cow staring at you — two legs supporting a head. It corresponds to the Hebrew letter Aleph, which corresponds to the Semitic word for ox. “You can still see that in the ‘A,’” Dr. Garfinkel said.

Part of the alphabet’s function came from its simplicity. Matching one letter to one sound made writing and reading far easier to learn. Dr. Hasel compared it with the printing press and the internet — whole new communities were able to access information and record history. “The invention of the alphabet was the most important contribution to communication in the last four millennia,” he said.

But the discovery of the letters on the tiny ivory comb did not start with anyone seeking clues to how this alphabet emerged. The artifact had been in storage since 2016, when it was collected from the ruins of the ancient city of Tel Lachish. Archaeologists digging at the site can inventory thousands of items a week.

Earlier this year, Madeleine Mumcuoglu, a parasitologist and archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, put the comb under a microscope to look for remnants of head lice. “I concentrated on the teeth, and not on anything else,” she said. “I had beautiful pictures under the microscope.”

But she also took pictures of the whole comb with her phone, and when she zoomed in, she saw an engraving.

A small group of tourists walk among stone ruins of the archaeological site.
Visitors to the Tel Lachish site, where researchers say their team often digs up thousands of artifacts a week.Credit…Amir Cohen/Reuters

Dr. Mumcuoglu sent two of these pictures to Daniel Vainstub, a paleographer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. He was able to discern Canaanite letters. Dr. Hasel and Dr. Garfinkel then sent the actual comb to Dr. Vainstub for a more thorough analysis. All of the researchers were stunned that the writing had gone unnoticed for more than five years

“Everybody had this comb in their hand, and no one saw the inscription,” Dr. Mumcuoglu said.

Over the next few months, Dr. Vainstub compared the 17 letters in the inscription, each less than a tenth of an inch long, to other ancient writings. Because examples of Canaanite writing around the same time period are rare and fragmentary, and because many of the engravings on the comb were faint, the work was painstaking. But the writing of the inscription on an ivory comb seemed to point to a single translation. Dr. Vainstub said that, after he made out the word “lice,” he knew he had figured it out.

“This is brilliant and judicious and careful scholarship,” said Dr. Rollston, who was not involved in the study.

While the discovery and deciphering of the inscription amounts to a significant archaeological advance in the study of the alphabet, none of the researchers claim that this finding blows open the doors to the field. In fact, there are many new questions to ask: There were no elephants in Canaan, so where was the ivory comb inscribed? Who inscribed it? What purpose did the inscription serve?

Dr. Garfinkel said that finding the comb with a plea against lice was like “finding a plate that says, ‘Put food on this plate.’” It’s simple, functional and reflective, in some ways, of our nature.

“It’s something very human,” he said. “What were you expecting? A love song? A recipe to make pizza?”

New York Times – November 9, 2022

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