Engraved into the side of a nearly 4,000-year-old ivory comb is a simple wish: Get these lice out of my hair!
This faint carving represents the earliest known example of a complete sentence written with a phonetic alphabet. This kind of writing system uses letters or symbols to represent sounds. It later served as a major basis for many modern alphabets.
That makes the comb “the most important object I’ve ever found during an excavation,” says Yosef Garfinkel. He’s an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel. Garfinkel was part of a team that published its findings November 9 in the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology.
The carving was written in the early language of the Canaanites. This cultural group lived in the eastern Mediterranean region called the Levant until some 2,000 years ago. These people traded widely across the Mediterranean. Few of their written records have survived. Most of what researchers know about them comes from documents, such as the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament.
The comb was unearthed in 2016. It turned up among ruins of the ancient city of Lachish, in present-day Israel. Years later, the comb was sent to a lab to search for traces of lice. In the lab, someone noticed faint symbols etched on one side. A closer look revealed that the symbols spelled out a sentence: “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.”
The discovery may offer a glimpse into the life of one of Lachish’s wealthy residents. The fact that the sentence refers to a beard suggests it belonged to a man, Garfinkel says. The comb’s material gives further clues. Elephant ivory had to be imported from Egypt. So it would have been expensive back then.
The plea against lice is “so human,” says Garfinkel. He notes that other writings from the time tend to center not on personal hygiene but on things like royal victories or religion. It also appears that the comb was able to fulfill its purpose. Between its teeth, the researchers found the ancient remains of a louse.
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