Oldest known written phrase discovered – on a lice comb

It’s a simple phrase that captures the hopes and fears of parents today as much as the Bronze Age Canaanites who possessed the double-edged ivory comb on which the words appear.

Believed to be the oldest known phrase written in the oldest alphabet, the inscription on the luxury item reads: “May this defense remove lice from hair and beard”.

Unearthed in Lachish, a Canaanite city-state of the second millennium BCE and the second most important city in the Kingdom of Judah, the comb suggests that humans endured lice for thousands of years and that even the wealthiest n were not spared from the sinister infestations.

“The inscription is very human,” said Professor Yosef Garfinkel, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who helped lead the Lachish excavations. “You have a comb and on the comb you wish to destroy the lice on the hair and the beard. These days we have all these modern sprays and drugs and poisons. In the past, they didn’t have one.

The comb, which measures 3.5cm by 2.5cm, was discovered at the site in 2017, but the shallow surface carvings were only spotted in December last year. Analysis of the marks confirmed that the script was the Canaanite script, the first alphabet invented around 3,800 years ago.

Efforts to obtain an age for the comb from carbon dating have proven unsuccessful, but researchers believe it was done around 1700 BCE. The comb is worn and has lost its teeth, but the remaining stumps show that it once had six widely spaced teeth for removing matted hair on one side and 14 closely spaced teeth for removing lice and eggs on the other.

Further proof of the comb’s usefulness came when researchers examined it under a microscope and identified the tough outer membranes of the half-millimetre-long nymphal stages of head lice.

The letters on the comb spell out seven words that form the first completely deciphered sentence in a Canaanite dialect, written in the Canaanite script, the Jerusalem Journal of Archeology researchers said.

Ancient combs were made from wood, bone and ivory, but the latter would have been expensive imported luxuries. There were no elephants in Canaan then.

The world’s first writing systems appeared in Mesopotamia and Egypt around 3200 BCE, but they were not alphabetic. They relied on hundreds of different signs to represent words or syllables, and as such took years to master, said Christopher Rollston, professor of Northwest Semitic languages ​​at George Washington University. in the USA.

The first alphabet was invented around 1800 BCE by Semitic-speaking people who knew the Egyptian writing system, Rollston said. Known as Canaanite or Early Alphabetic, the system was used for hundreds of years, particularly in the Levant, and was standardized by the Phoenicians in ancient Lebanon. It became the foundation of ancient Greek, Latin, and most modern languages ​​in Europe today.

“The fact that this inscription speaks of ordinary life is particularly fascinating,” Rollston said. “Throughout human history, lice have been an ongoing problem. And this inscription does reveal that even the rich and famous in ancient times were not free from such problems. We can only hope that this Registered comb was helpful in doing what it says it was supposed to do – root out some of those pesky insects.

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