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Front Page - Friday, November 18, 2022

SAU archaeologists make linguistic discovery

An aerial view of Tel Lachish, where a team of archaeology students and employees from Southern Adventist University and Hebrew University of Jerusalem uncovered a hair comb with linguistic significance. - Photo by Emil Aladjem

A recent discovery dating to about 1,700 B.C. presents an entire sentence in alphabetic Canaanite. Engraved on a small ivory comb, it includes a wish against lice.

The alphabet was invented around 1,800 B.C. and was used by Canaanites and later by most other languages in the world. Until recently, no meaningful Canaanite inscriptions had been discovered, with the exception of two or three words here and there.

Southern Adventist University archaeology students discovered the comb during excavations at Lachish, an ancient Canaanite and Israelite city in the Shephelah region of Israel.

“The find cannot be overestimated,” says Dr. Michael Hasel, professor of archaeology at Southern Adventist and co-director of the Lachish excavations. “The invention of the alphabet was the most important contribution to communication in the last four millennia.”

“Before this time, complicated systems of writing in Egypt and Mesopotamia limited literacy. Today, most of the world constructs sentences using the alphabet found on this comb from 3,700 years ago. Here, we have the first verbal sentence using the alphabet ever found.”

The ivory comb measures roughly 3.5-by-2.5 centimeters and has teeth on both sides. Although their bases are still visible, the teeth were broken in antiquity.

The central part of the comb is somewhat eroded, possibly by the pressure of fingers holding the comb during haircare or removal of lice.

The side of the comb with six thick teeth was used to untangle knots in the hair, while the other side, with 14 fine teeth, was used to remove lice and their eggs, much like the modern-day, two-sided lice combs sold in stores.

“When we found the comb on the first day of excavation in 2016, the inscription was not seen due to the encrustation of dirt,” says Katherine Helser, a 2019 graduate of Southern Adventist, in whose area the find was made.

Ancient combs were made from wood, bone or ivory. Ivory was expensive and probably imported. As there were no elephants in Canaan during that time period, the comb likely came from nearby Egypt – factors indicating that even people of high social status suffered from lice.

Partners from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem analyzed the comb for the presence of lice under a microscope and took photographs of both sides. Remains of head lice were found on the second tooth.

The discovery of writing on the comb was made in 2022 as Dr. Madeleine Mumcuoglu was photographing the object under certain light. The inscription was deciphered by semitic epigraphist Dr. Daniel Vainstub at Ben Gurion University.

The findings by the joint expedition between the Hebrew University and Southern Adventist were published in the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology.

There are 17 Canaanite letters on the comb. They are archaic in form – from the first stage of the invention of the alphabet script. They form seven words in Canaanite that read “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.”

Despite its small size, the inscription on the comb fills in knowledge gaps of many aspects of the culture of Canaan in the Bronze Age. For the first time, researchers have an entire verbal sentence written in the dialect spoken by the Canaanite inhabitants of Lachish, enabling them to compare this language with the other sources for it.

Also, the inscription on the comb sheds light on some aspects of the everyday life of the time.

In addition, this is the first discovery in the region of an inscription referring to the purpose of the object on which it was written, as opposed to dedicatory or ownership inscriptions on objects.

Finally, the engraver’s skill in executing the tiny letters (one to three millimeters wide) should now be taken into account in any attempt to summarize and draw conclusions on literacy in Canaan during the Bronze Age.

The Canaanite alphabet is the same used in the written Hebrew of the first books of the Bible. The comb inscription dates the alphabet before the biblical writers existed and confirms the alphabetic script was in everyday use in cities the Israelites later occupied.

Lachish was a major Canaanite city state in the second millennium B.C. and the second most important city in the Biblical kingdom of Judah.

Southern Adventist will open a major exhibition Jan. 30 in its Lynn H. Wood Archaeological Museum titled “Peace and War: The Assyrian Conquest of Lachish” that will highlight important discoveries from the 2013-2017 excavations the university sponsored at Lachish.

Source: Southern Adventist