Archaeologists have unearthed a comb with an inscription using the oldest known alphabet in history. Engraved Canaanite script advertises its purpose. “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.” The comb is fancy and double-sided. Widely spaced teeth are for detangling on one side. Thin, close teeth on the other were for combing out lice and eggs.
The comb was found in Lachish, the second most important Canaanite city in the Kingdom of Judah. While most combs and tools were made of wood or bone, this one’s made of ivory. Apparently a lack of elephants in the area makes this a luxury item. Whoever owned this had deep pockets. Turns out lice enjoy a good head of hair or face of beard regardless of caste.
Professor Yosef Garfinkel loves the plain-spoken text. “The inscription is very human…on the comb you have a wish to destroy lice on the hair and beard.” Garfinkel helped direct the Lachish excavations, elaborating that people of the past didn’t have the sprays and shampoos for delousing we do today.
Roughly 3,800 years old, Canaanite script is the oldest written alphabet in history. Semitic-speakers modified the Egyptian writing system into this script around 1800 B.C.E. In other words, without this writing structure, we wouldn’t have the alphabets for Latin, ancient Greek, or modern European languages we do. Canaanite script is the root of all of them.
Christopher Rollston, a professor of northwest Semitic languages at George Washington University, also finds the humanity of the sentence endearing. “The fact that this inscription is about ordinary life is especially fascinating.” He’s not wrong. There’s something charming about a thousand-year comb coming with instructions. And that, like Roman graffiti, humans have always been humans.