Archaeologists in Israel have found an ancient comb dating back some 3,700 years that probably has the oldest known complete sentence in Canaanite alphabetic script, according to a paper published on November 8th. The inscription encourages people to comb their hair and beards to get rid of lice. The phrase contains 17 letters that read, “May this tusk remove lice from the hair and beard.”
The letters of the inscription were engraved in a very shallow manner. It was excavated in 2017 but the letters were noticed only in subsequent post-processing in 2022 by Dr. Madeleine Mumcuoglu. It was cleaned and preserved by Miriam Lavi.
Experts say the discovery sheds new light on some of mankind’s earliest uses of the Canaanite alphabet, invented around 1800 B.C. and the basis for all successive alphabetic systems, such as Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, Latin and Cyrillic.
The comb inscription is direct evidence for the use of the alphabet in daily activities some 3700 years ago.Yosef Garfinkel, Hebrew University archaeologist
The mundane subject indicates that people had problems with lice in everyday life during that time, and archaeologists say they even found microscopic evidence of lice on the comb. Details of the find were published in an article in the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology.
The lead researcher, Hebrew University archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel, told the Associated Press that while many artifacts with Canaanite script have been found over the years, this is the first complete prayer to be discovered.
“This is the first sentence 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 till today. The Canaanite cities are mentioned in Egyptian documents, the Amarna letters that were written in Akkadian, and in the Hebrew Bible. The comb inscription is direct evidence for the use of the alphabet in daily activities some 3700 years ago. This is a landmark in the history of the human ability to write,” said Garfinkel.
The discovery opens up room for debate about the ancient era. The fact that the prayer was found on an ivory comb in the palace and temple district of the ancient city, along with the mention of the beard, could indicate that only wealthy men were literate.
Garfinkel stated that previous finds of only a few letters, perhaps 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 Canaanites spoke an ancient Semitic language, related to modern Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic, and resided in the lands bordering the eastern Mediterranean. They are believed to have developed the earliest known alphabetic writing system.
Finding a complete sentence would further indicate that the Canaanites excelled among the earliest civilizations in the use of the written word. “It shows that even in the earliest phase there were complete sentences,” Garfinkel added.
He said experts dated the writing to 1700 B.C. by comparing it to the archaic Canaanite alphabet found earlier in Egypt’s Sinai Desert, which dates to between 1900 B.C. and 1700 B.C.
But the Tel Lachish comb was found in a much later archaeological context, and carbon dating could not determine its exact age. ”It’s a very human text,” Garfinkel said. “It shows us that the people really didn’t change and the lice really didn’t change.”