The first whole sentence discovered in one of the oldest known alphabets is about lice

The object seemed almost banal. A comb, discovered in 2016 in Israel, spent several years in a repository, before the discovery of an inscription on its side caught the attention of researchers. These seventeen signs engraved in ivory, each measuring a few millimeters, form a rare inscription in the Canaanite language. It is even the first known complete sentence in this very old alphabet, a distant ancestor of ours, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem announced on Wednesday.

The comb, which measures 3.5 cm by 2.5 cm and dates from 1700 BC, was found in 2016 during excavations at the archaeological site of Tel Lachish, an important locality of the Canaanite period located about 40 kilometers southwest of Jerusalem. It was then stored with the hundreds of other objects discovered for several years, no one having detected the tiny inscription on it. It was only this year that Madeleine Mumcuoglu, a parasitologist and archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, brought out the object to try to find traces of lice on it. “I focused on the teeth […]. I obtained magnificent photos under the microscope”, she confides to the New York Times. And it is quite by chance, looking at a photo of the entire object, taken with her phone, that she notices the presence of an engraving.

It alerts specialists in the Canaanite alphabet, whose archaeologists already knew 10 similar inscriptions, but never a whole sentence. However, the 17 signs drawn on the comb do indeed form a sentence, which could be deciphered: “May this defense eradicate hair and beard lice”.

A “very human” inscription

This result, published in the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology, is a major contribution to the understanding of the use of this script more than 3700 years ago. If the alphabet used interests archaeologists so much, it is because it is one of the first known scripts made up of phonemes, signs linked to sounds, unlike hieroglyphs, for example. The evolution of this ancient writing then gave birth to the Phoenician alphabet, then Aramaic, ancient Greek and finally Latin, the basis of our contemporary characters.

Read also: The first astronomical catalog of humanity found in a palimpsest

The phrase is all the closer to us as it refers to a situation with which we can still identify today. “Registration is very human,” comments in the Guardian Professor Yossef Garfinkel, an archaeologist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who helped lead the Lachish excavations. “You have a comb and on the comb you have inscribed the wish to destroy hair and beard lice.” Nowadays, we would certainly use products to eradicate them, he continues.

The phrase, trivial as it is, represents “direct evidence” of the use of the Canaanite alphabet in daily life at the time, explains Yossef Garfinkel. The comb itself still raises many questions, such as the fact that it was made of ivory – when there were no elephants in the region at the time. It would thus be a luxury item, but which was indeed used in its primary function, proof of which are the remains of lice eggs discovered between its teeth.

The purpose of the inscription also has something mysterious about it. For Yossef Garfinkel, finding a comb with a phrase written on it to ward off lice is like “finding a plate that says, ‘Put some food on this plate,'” quotes the New York Times.

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