The small ivory comb was approximately the size of a child’s thumb and was found among ancient ruins in central Israel. Several of its teeth were broken. The archaeologist who discovered it first placed it in a sack with other bones since it was so covered in filth.
More than half a decade later, by sheer chance, experts discovered faintly etched inscriptions on the object: “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and beard.”
Michael Hasel, an archaeologist from Southern Adventist University in Tennessee who participated in the discovery of the comb, said, “People chuckle when you tell them what the inscription truly means.”
However, these remarks were everything from mundane. Dr. Hasel and his colleagues dated the comb to approximately 1,700 B.C., which means that this appeal against lice is one of the earliest examples of Canaanite writing, an ancient Near Eastern people credited with developing the earliest forms of the alphabet that evolved into the letters used in this newspaper today. According to a report published on Wednesday in the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology, the 17 letters on the comb comprise the earliest complete phrase ever discovered in an early alphabetic system.
Around 3,200 B.C., cuneiform in Mesopotamia and hieroglyphics in Egypt were the first writing systems that can be established. These scripts had hundreds of letters and were mostly graphic. This made them very hard to master, yet they proliferated across the Near East. At some time, presumably close to 1,800 B.C., a new form of writing based on a handful of repeated and rearranged letters arose in the area. Each letter corresponds to a particular phoneme, or fundamental sound.
The origins of this early alphabet are little known. However, Christopher Rollston, who researches the languages and writing systems of the Near East at George Washington University, said that “the alphabet was created by Semitic-speaking individuals who were conversant with Egyptian writing.”
The alphabet continued to develop, from Phoenician to Old Hebrew to Old Aramaic to Ancient Greek to Latin, eventually creating the foundation for the contemporary English alphabet. According to Dr. Garfinkel, the DNA of the first alphabet is still present in English and Hebrew. For example, the letter “A” resembles a cow with its two legs supporting its head. It is equivalent to the Hebrew letter Aleph, which is equivalent to the Semitic word for ox. “You can still see it in the ‘A,'” said Dr. Garfinkel.
The simplicity of the alphabet contributed to its utility. Matching one letter to one sound makes learning to write and read much simpler. Dr. Hasel likened it to the printing press and the internet, in that it enabled whole new communities to access knowledge and preserve history.
But the finding of the letters on the little ivory comb did not begin with an investigation into the origins of the alphabet. Since 2016, when it was retrieved from the remains of the ancient city of Tel Lachish, the relic has been stored. Archaeologists excavating the site may catalogue hundreds of artefacts every week.
Madeleine Mumcuoglu, a parasitologist and archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, examined the comb under a microscope earlier this year in search of head lice remains.
She also photographed the whole comb with her smartphone, and when she zoomed in, she saw an etching.
Two of these images were submitted to Daniel Vainstub, a paleographer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, by Dr. Mumcuoglu. He could recognise Canaanite letters. Drs. Hasel and Garfinkel submitted the real comb to Dr. Vainstub for a more comprehensive examination. All of the scholars were astonished that the manuscript had gone undiscovered for almost five years.
Dr. Vainstub examined the 17 letters in the inscription, each smaller than a tenth of an inch long, to other ancient texts over the following several months. As instances of Canaanite writing from the same time period are uncommon and incomplete, and as many of the engravings on the comb were faint, the process was laborious. However, the writing of the inscription on the ivory comb pointed to a single interpretation. Dr. Vainstub stated he knew he had worked it out when he deciphered the word “lice.”
Although the discovery and decipherment of the inscription is an important archaeological achievement in the study of the alphabet, none of the academics assert that this discovery radically alters the field. In reality, there are several fresh inquiries to be made: Canaan lacked elephants, therefore where was the ivory comb inscribed? Who authored it? What was the aim of the inscription?
Dr. Garfinkel compared discovering a comb with a plea against lice to discovering a dish with the instruction “Place food on this plate.” It is basic, utilitarian, and in some ways representative of our nature.
He said, “It’s something really human.” “What did you anticipate? A song of love? A recipe to make pizza?”