The alphabet was invented around 1800 BCE and was used by the Canaanites and later by most other languages of the world. Until recently, no significant Canaanite inscriptions had been discovered in the Land of Israel, except for just a couple of words here and there. Now, a stunning find features an entire Canaanite phrase, dating to around 1700 BCE. It is engraved on a small ivory comb and includes a spell against lice.
The comb was unearthed in Tel Lachish in Israel by a team from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU) and Southern Adventist University in the United States, led by professors Yosef Garfinkel, Michael Hasel and Martin Klingbeil. The inscription was deciphered by Semitic epigraphist Dr. Daniel Vainstub of Ben-Gurion University (BGU). The ivory was tested by Prof. HU Rivka Rabinovich and Prof. BGU Yuval Goren and found to be from an elephant tusk. Their findings were published in Jerusalem Archeology Journal.
The letters of the inscription were engraved very superficially. It was excavated in 2017 but the letters were not noticed until later post-processing in 2022 by Dr Madeleine Mumcuoglu. It has been cleaned and preserved by Miriam Lavi.
The ivory comb is small, measuring approximately 3.5 by 2.5 cm. The comb has teeth on both sides. Although their bases are still visible, the teeth of the comb themselves were broken off in antiquity. The central part of the comb is somewhat eroded, perhaps by the pressure of the fingers holding the comb when grooming the hair or removing lice from the head or beard. The side of the comb with six thick teeth was used to untangle tangles in the hair, while the other side, with 14 fine teeth, was used to remove lice and their eggs, much like the current two-sided lice combs sold in stores.
There are 17 Canaanite letters on the comb. They are archaic in form – from the first stage of the invention of alphabetic writing. They form seven words in Canaanite: “May this defense extirpate lice from hair and beard.
“It is the first phrase 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 until today. The Canaanite cities are mentioned in Egyptian documents, the Amarna letters which were written in Akkadian and in the Hebrew Bible. The comb inscription is direct evidence of the use of the alphabet in daily activities around 3700 years ago. It’s a landmark in the history of the human ability to write,” Garfinkel shared.
Ancient combs were made from wood, bone or ivory. Ivory was a very expensive material and probably an imported luxury item. Since there were no elephants in Canaan during this period, the comb probably came from neighboring Egypt – factors indicating that even people of high social status suffered from lice.
The research team analyzed the comb itself for the presence of lice under a microscope and photographs were taken of both sides. Head lice remains, 0.5-0.6 mm in size, were found on the second tooth. The climatic conditions of Lachish, however, did not allow the preservation of whole head lice but only those of the outer chitin membrane of the head louse at the nymph stage.
Despite its small size, the Lachish comb inscription exhibits very special features, some of which are unique and fill gaps and gaps in our knowledge of many aspects of Canaan culture in the Bronze Age. For the first time, we have an entire verbal sentence written in the dialect spoken by the Canaanite inhabitants of Lachish, which allows us to compare this language in all its aspects with the other sources concerning it. Secondly, the inscription on the comb sheds light on certain hitherto poorly attested aspects of daily life at the time, hair care and the fight against lice.
Third, it is the first discovery in the region of an inscription referring to the destination of the object on which it was written, as opposed to dedicatory or ownership inscriptions on objects. Moreover, the skill of the engraver in successfully executing such tiny letters (1 to 3 mm wide) is a fact that must now be taken into account in any attempt to summarize and conclude on literacy in Canaan. in the Bronze Age.
Lachish was a major Canaanite city-state in the second millennium BCE and the second most important city of the biblical kingdom of Judah. To date, 10 Canaanite inscriptions have been found at Lachish, more than at any other site in Israel. The city was the main center for the use and preservation of the alphabet for about 600 years, from 1800 to 1150 BCE. The Tel Lachish site is under the protection of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.
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Material provided by The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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