A small ivory comb unearthed at biblical Lachish in 2017 turns out to have produced the first known sentence from the ancient Canaanites in their language. Archaeologists Yossi Garfinkel, Michael Hasel, and Martin Klingbeil announced the discovery this morning. The comb was found in 2017 but the inscription was only observed later.
The inscription is an anti-lice spell that reads, “May this [ivory] tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.” Dr. Madeleine Mumcuoglu noticed the inscribed characters during cleaning and processing in the lab. Ancient lice combs, like modern ones, were designed to remove lice and embedded eggs from hair. This comb’s owner apparently felt the extra verbage would lend an advantage.
The first alphabet seems to have been invented around 1800 BC and this inscription dates to just 100 or so years later, making this find among the earliest examples of an alphabet. Other Canaanite inscriptions have been found, but they have only been a few words at most. This is the first discovery of a complete Canaanite sentence in alphabetic characters.
It should be noted that other writing systems such as hieroglyphs and cuneiform existed long before 1700 BC, but they were not a simple collection of symbols that represent sounds. Scribes had to train for years to use those systems, whereas an alphabet is a much simpler and flexible approach. One could say our modern alphabets came from the scribbling on this ivory comb.
The comb was found in 2017, during the final season of the 4th Lachish expedition. I participated briefly during that last season but was not involved in the comb’s discovery.
See more images and read the press release at this link.