You would be mistaken to assume that the earliest scribes of humans who used the alphabet recorded any sort of generational knowledge or a significant message intended to be transmitted down the ages.
On a little ivory comb found etched with the oldest decipherable entire sentence ever discovered, dating to 1,700 B.C.E., at the Tel Lachish archeological site in central Israel in 2016, the writing was discovered. “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard,” was written in slender characters.
“People kind of laugh when you tell them what the inscription actually says,” one of the archaeologists on the project, Michael Hasel, of the Southern Adventist University in Tennessee, told the New York Times.
But the message is also remarkably relatable—especially for parents of small children.
“Nothing like this was found before. It’s not the royal inscription of a king… this is something very human. You’re immediately connected to this person who had this comb,” Yosef Garfinkel, a professor of archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told CNN.
The Canaanites, a Near Eastern people who created the first alphabet and were the forerunners of our contemporary Latin letters, wrote the words in antiquity. Around 3,200 B.C.E., Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics, which were pictorially based writing systems with hundreds of letters, first appeared.
The invention of the Canaanite alphabet, with its relatively few letters that represented the most fundamental phonemes, or spoken sounds, was a watershed moment in human history. Reading and writing became simpler for the general public because each letter corresponded to a single sound, much like the printing press or the internet did several centuries later.
“Nowadays, every person in the world can read and write using the alphabet system. This is really one of the most important intellectual achievements of humankind,” Garfinkel added. “When you are writing in English, you’re really using Canaanite.”
Before the Phoenicians, who are frequently credited with creating the alphabet and who started standardizing letter forms around 1,100 B.C.E., this new style of writing initially appeared approximately 1,800 B.C.E. The Canaanite alphabet had previously been recognized on objects by archaeologists, but this is the first time a whole sentence has been discovered.
The comb’s old writing may have easily gone overlooked. The tiny artifact’s dirt-covered surface and several fractured teeth led archaeologists to mistake it at first for a bone. It then sat in storage for five years, neglected, before being examined under a microscope for the first time by parasitologist and archaeologist Madeleine Mumcuoglu of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
She examined the teeth and discovered remnants of ancient head lice—tough outer membranes of the nymph stage of the species. Mumcuoglu, however, also snapped a brief iPhone photo of the object as a whole and unexpectedly discovered it had lettering etched into its handle.
She, Garfinkel, and Hasel sent the comb to Israeli paleographer Daniel Vainstub at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in an effort to understand the message that had gone unnoticed. The importance of the comb and its 17-letter, seven-word inscription are the subject of a recent paper that was coauthored by all four and was printed in the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology.
The comb’s age could not be determined by radiocarbon dating or DNA analysis, but researchers assume it was created around 1,700 B.C.E. based on comparison to other artifacts with Canaanite script.
The double-sided comb features 14 narrower teeth on the other side and six wider teeth on the other side, all of which are now broken. These teeth are used to separate hair and remove lice and lice eggs from the scalp. It is only 1.4 by 1 inches in size.
It would have been a pricey luxury at the time of its construction because it was made from imported ivory. The inscription, however, makes it plain that even great wealth was unable to save the ancients from unwelcome parasites.
“You have a comb and on the comb, you have a wish to destroy lice on the hair and beard. Nowadays, we have all these sprays and modern medicines and poisons,” Garfinkel told the Guardian. “In the past, they didn’t have those.”
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