Early comb inscription kept lice away
The oldest Canaanite sentence has been discovered at the site of Tel Lachish, according to an article published in the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology. The inscription, carved into an ivory comb, dates to around 1700 BCE, only a century after most scholars believe the alphabet was invented. Written in an archaic Proto-Canaanite script, the inscription sheds incredible light on the early development of the alphabet and the daily life of an important Canaanite city.
Although several Proto-Canaanite inscriptions have been found, with some even older than the Lachish comb, this is by far the oldest alphabetic inscription that contains a full sentence. Other ancient inscriptions are generally brief and consist only of the name of the object or its owner.
So what does the oldest Canaanite sentence say? “May this [ivory] tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard,” a fitting inscription to grace a comb. Remarkably, analysis of the comb provided evidence that this inscription, possibly termed a spell, was effective, as the remains of a louse were discovered on one of the comb’s teeth.
Crafted of elephant ivory, likely imported from Egypt, the comb would have been a prestige object, owned by a wealthy family. “It would have been like a diamond today, a crème de la crème luxury item. Others likely had lice combs too, but made of wood that would have decayed,” Yosef Garfinkel, Lachish excavator and a co-author of the study, told Haaretz. The tiny size of the comb (it measures just over an inch long) left little room for the 17 Proto-Canaanite letters written on it, which together make up seven words.
According to epigrapher Christopher Rollston of George Washington University, “Of course, this is also an object that was commissioned by, and owned by, a very wealthy family. After all, who else would have the money to commission a scribe to write an inscription on a hairbrush! The high caliber of the script and orthography, the fact that it is written on a prestige object, and the fact that it was found at a strategic military site, combine to make the most convincing conclusion that it was written by a trained, professional scribe.”
Although the teeth of the comb were broken off in antiquity, their bases remain. One side of the comb featured six thick teeth, used to untangle knots. The other side had 14 finer teeth, used to remove lice.
The ivory comb was uncovered during excavations of the famous site of Lachish in the Shephelah region of southern Israel. However, the comb itself was found in a secondary deposit. Because of this, it was not possible to date the comb according to other finds in the area. Instead, the comb’s date was determined through paleography (the form of the comb’s letters). According to the team, analysis of the script showed that it was very archaic, with several features that do not show up in later versions of the Canaanite script.
Most notable is the presence of the Semitic letter ś. This letter is a sibilant that disappeared in most North Semitic languages shortly after the invention of the alphabet. Those languages where the “ś” sound was preserved, like Hebrew, typically did not represent it with a separate letter but rather used the letter shin for both the “sh” and “ś” sounds. The presence of this letter, along with other paleographic clues, indicates that the script was used quite early in the development of the alphabet. The comb inscription, therefore, uses an early form of both the letters, which are more pictographic in style, and the Canaanite language, before the ś letter had fallen out of use.
Although there is much that remains unknown about the people who used the comb and wrote its inscription, they can confidently be associated with the same Canaanites whose kings would later appear in the Amarna Letters and whose cities were listed in the reliefs of Egyptian pharaohs. Beyond providing a peek into ancient history, however, the Lachish comb inscription also provides invaluable new information about the development of the alphabet. “This is a landmark in the history of the human ability to write,” shared Garfinkel.
Lachish, now the site of the oldest written Canaanite sentence, is an especially interesting site in the history of the alphabet. A major Canaanite city in the second millennium BCE, excavations at Lachish have revealed at least ten Proto-Canaanite inscriptions, much more than any other site in Israel. Clearly, the site was a major center for the use and preservation of the alphabet between its invention and the end of the Late Bronze Age (c. 1200 BCE). The site has likewise supplied an unusual cache of Hebrew texts dating to the Iron Age (c. 1200–586 BCE), when it was one of the most important cities in Judah.
As Rollston notes, “Lachish was a fortified military site that was consistently connected with officialdom, that is, with kings, governors, and military officials. And as the Hebrew Bible itself attests, trained scribes in the ancient Near East were routinely stationed with royal militaries (e.g., 2 Kings 25:19; Jeremiah 52:25). In other words, at strategic military sites in the ancient Near East, it was not all that difficult to find a well-trained scribe.”
Although the earliest writing systems—those of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and possibly India—date back to the fourth millennium BCE, they were non-alphabetic and in some instances included more than a thousand signs. It was not until around 1800 BCE, according to most scholars, that the first alphabet was invented. This alphabet, commonly referred to as Proto-Canaanite, was invented by Semitic-speaking peoples who were familiar with the Egyptian writing system and modified certain signs to fit into their own language.
“There is a wide misconception in the general public that the Phoenicians invented the alphabet. They didn’t. They adapted and standardized the alphabet several centuries after it was invented,” said Rollston. It was only after this that the ancient Israelites adopted the alphabet, developing their own version from the standardized Phoenician alphabet. The Arameans and Greeks would similarly adopt the Phoenician version of the alphabet, adapting it to form their own scripts. “The alphabet was only invented once, in around 1800 BCE, and all subsequent versions of the alphabet derive, ultimately, from that first alphabet,” Rollston concludes.
Ed. Note: Christopher Rollston is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Biblical Archaeology Review.
This article was originally published in Bible History Daily on November 11, 2022.
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