Israeli archaeologists find ancient comb with ‘complete sentence’
JERUSALEM (AP) – Archaeologists in Israel have discovered an ancient comb dating back some 3,700 years and containing what may be the oldest sentence in the Canaanite alphabet, according to a paper published Wednesday.
The writing urges people to comb their hair and beards to get rid of lice. The sentence contains 17 letters that say: “Let this tusk root out the lice of the hair and beard.”
Experts say the discovery sheds new light on mankind’s earliest use of the Canaanite alphabet, which was invented around 1000 BCE. around 1800 and formed the basis of all subsequent alphabetic systems such as Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, Latin, and Cyrillic.
The mundane theme suggests that people had problems with lice in everyday life, and archaeologists say they have even found microscopic evidence of head lice on a comb.
The comb was first excavated in 2016 at the Tel Lachish archaeological site in southern Israel, but it wasn’t until late last year that a professor at Israel’s Hebrew University noticed the tiny words written on it. Details of the find were published in an article published Wednesday in the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology.
Lead researcher Yosef Garfinkel, an archaeologist at Hebrew University, told The Associated Press that while many artifacts with Canaanite writing have been found over the years, this is the first complete sentence that has been found.
Garfinkel said previous findings involving just a few letters, perhaps a single word, don’t leave much room for further study of Canaanite life. “We didn’t have enough material,” he said.
The find also opens up a debate about antiquity, Garfinkel added. The fact that the sentence was found on an ivory comb in the palace and temple district of the ancient city, as well as the mention of a beard, may indicate that only wealthy men could read and write.
“It’s a very human text,” Garfinkel said. “It shows us that people haven’t really changed, and lice haven’t really changed.”
The Canaanites spoke an ancient Semitic language related to modern Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic, and lived in the countries along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. They are believed to have developed the first known alphabetic system of writing.
Finding a complete sentence will show that the Canaanites were prominent among the early civilizations in their use of the written word. “It shows that even at the earliest stage there were complete sentences,” Garfinkel added.
He said experts have dated the writing to B.C. 1700, comparing it to the ancient Canaanite alphabet previously found in the Sinai desert in Egypt, dating from 1000 BC. 1900 to 1700 BC.
But the Tell Lachish comb was found in a much later archaeological context, and carbon dating has not been able to determine its exact age, the paper notes.
Austrian archaeologist Felix Höflmeier, an expert on the period who was not part of the publication, said this dating method was inconclusive.
“At present, no sufficiently securely dated early alphabetic inscriptions are known,” he said. However, he added that the discovery is very important and will help solidify Tell Lachish as a center for the development of the early alphabet.
“Seventeen letters preserved on one object is definitely remarkable,” said Hoflmeyer.
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