JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli archaeologists have found an ancient comb dating back some 3,700 years that bears the oldest known complete sentence in Canaanite alphabetic writing, according to an article published Wednesday.
The inscription encourages people to comb their hair and beards to get rid of lice. The sentence contains 17 letters that read: “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and beard.”
Experts say the discovery sheds new light on some of humanity’s earliest use of the Canaanite alphabet, invented around 1800 BC. and the foundations of all successive alphabetic systems, such as Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, Latin, and Cyrillic.
The mundane theme shows that people had a problem with lice in everyday life during the time – and archaeologists say they have even found tiny evidence of head lice in the comb.
The comb was first excavated in 2016 at Tel Lachish, an archaeological site in southern Israel, but it wasn’t until late last year that a professor at Israel’s Hebrew University noticed the tiny words engraved on it. Details of the find were published Wednesday in an article in the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology.
Lead researcher Hebrew University archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel told The Associated Press that while many artifacts bearing Canaanite writing have been found over the years, this is the first complete sentence to be discovered.
Garfinkel said the previous finds with just a few letters, maybe a word here and there, didn’t leave much room for further research into Canaanite life. “We didn’t have enough material,” he said.
The find also opens up a debate about ancient times, Garfinkel added. The fact that the sentence was found on an ivory comb in the area of the palaces and temples of the ancient city, combined with the mention of the beard, could indicate that only wealthy men could read and write.
“It’s a very human text,” Garfinkel said. “It shows us that people haven’t really changed and lice haven’t really changed.”
The Canaanites spoke an ancient Semitic language—related to modern Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic—and inhabited the lands bordering the eastern Mediterranean. They are believed to have developed the first known alphabetic writing system.
Finding a complete sentence would further show that the Canaanites stood out among early civilizations in their use of the written word. “It shows that even in the most ancient phase there were complete sentences,” Garfinkel added.
He said experts dated the script to 1700 BC. comparing it to the archaic Canaanite alphabet previously found in Egypt’s Sinai desert, dating between 1900 B.C. and 1700 BC
But the Tel Lachish comb was found in a much later archaeological context, and carbon dating failed to determine its exact age, the article notes.
Austrian archaeologist Felix Höflmayer, an expert on the period who was not part of the publication, said this dating method was not definitive.
“There are not enough securely dated early alphabetic inscriptions currently known,” he said. Nevertheless, he added that the discovery was extremely important and would help to establish Tel Lachish as the center of the early development of the alphabet.
“Seventeen letters preserved in a single object is certainly remarkable,” Höflmayer said.