An ivory comb with an ancient message. get rid of beard lice.

An ivory comb with an ancient message. get rid of beard lice.

The small ivory comb came from ancient ruins in central Israel and was about the size of a child’s thumb. Several of his teeth were knocked out. It was so covered in dirt that the archaeologist who found it initially added it to the bag of bones.

More than half a decade later, luckily, scientists found faintly written letters on the object. “Let this fang root out the lice of the hair and beard.”

“People kind of laugh when you tell them what the inscription actually says,” said Michael Hassell, an archaeologist at Tennessee Southern Adventist University who helped find the comb.

But those words turned out to be anything but ordinary. Dr. in the letters used in this paper today. As scientists explain it article: Published Wednesday in the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology, the 17 letters on the comb form the oldest complete, decipherable sentence ever found in an early alphabetic script.

“I really think this is the most important object ever found in my excavations,” said Yosef Garfinkel, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and co-author of the study. found evidence During his career under King David.

He paused, then added with a hint of emotion in his voice. “This is the first sentence ever found in the alphabet.”

The earliest attested systems of human writing appeared in B.C. around 3200 with cuneiform in Mesopotamia and hieroglyphs in Egypt. These scripts had hundreds of letters and were mostly pictorial. This made them very difficult to learn, but they spread throughout the Middle East. At some point, probably around B.C. In the 1800s, a new type of writing appeared in the region, based on just a few dozen letters that were repeated and shuffled around. Each letter is associated with one basic sound or phoneme.

The development of this early alphabet is not well understood. But Christopher Rolston, who studies Near Eastern languages ​​and writing systems at George Washington University, says there is a consensus that “the alphabet was invented by Semitic-speaking people who were familiar with the Egyptian writing system.”

A few centuries later, around B.C. By 1100, these earliest alphabetic scripts were adopted by the Phoenicians, who wrote strictly from right to left and standardized the shape and position of the letters. “There is a widespread misconception in the public that the Phoenicians invented the alphabet,” Dr Rolston said. “They didn’t.”

The alphabet continued to evolve, from Phoenician to Ancient Hebrew to Ancient Aramaic to Ancient Greek to Latin, becoming the basis of today’s modern English alphabet. Dr. Garfinkel said DNA from the earliest alphabet can still be found in English and Hebrew. For example, the letter “A” looks a bit like a cow looking at you; both legs support the head. It fits The Hebrew letter Aleph, which corresponds to the Semitic word ox. “You can still see it in the ‘A,'” Dr. Garfinkel said.

Part of the alphabet’s function comes from its simplicity. Corresponding one letter to one sound makes it much easier to learn to read and write. B. “The invention of the alphabet was the most important contribution to communication in the last four millennia,” he said.

But the discovery of letters on a small ivory comb began with someone looking for how this alphabet came about. The artifact has been in storage since 2016, when it was collected from the ruins of the ancient city of Tell Lachish. Archaeologists digging at the site can inventory thousands of items a week.

Earlier this year, Madeleine Mumcuoglu, a parasitologist and archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, put the comb under a microscope to look for remains of head lice. “I focused on the teeth and not on anything else,” he said. “I had beautiful pictures under the microscope.”

But he also took a picture of the entire comb with his phone, and when he zoomed in, he saw a carving.

Dr. He was able to distinguish the Canaanite letters. Dr. Hassel and Dr. Garfinkel then sent the actual comb to Dr. Weinstaub for a more thorough analysis. All the researchers were amazed that the writing had gone unnoticed for more than five years

“Everyone had this comb in their hands and no one had seen the inscription,” said Dr. Mumcuoglu.

Over the next several months, Dr. Weinstaub compared the inscription’s 17 letters, each less than a tenth of an inch long, to other ancient writings. Because examples of Canaanite writing from the same period are rare and fragmentary, and because many of the engravings on the comb were weak, the work was painstaking. But the inscription on the ivory comb seemed to point to one translation. B.

“This is brilliant, insightful and careful scholarship,” said Dr. Rolston, who was not involved in the study.

Although the discovery and decipherment of the inscription is a significant archaeological advance in the study of the alphabet, neither researcher claims that this find opens the door to the field. In fact, there are many new questions. There were no elephants in Canaan, so where was the ivory comb written? Who inscribed it? What purpose did the inscription serve?

Dr. Garfinkel said that finding a lice comb is like “finding a plaque that says: “Put the food on this plate.” It is simple, functional and in some ways reflective of our nature.

“It’s a very human thing,” he said. “What did you expect? A love song? A recipe for making pizza?

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