The Phrase on the Bronze Age Comb Found in Israel Has Been Translated

Epigrapher Daniel Vainstub translated the phrase on the ivory lice comb found in Israel’s Shephelah site and thought to date from the Bronze Age.

According to the article published in the “Jerusalem Journal of Archeology”, the 17-letter sentence on the comb means: “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.”1

The comb was originally found during excavations in the ancient city of Lachish (לכיש) in Israel in 2016. However, the letters on the comb were overlooked because they were smaller than three millimeters. The discoverer of the letters was Madeleine Mumcuoğlu, a research assistant from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Mumcuoğlu said that he discovered the letters while photographing the comb in 2021.

Ruins in Lachish
Oren Rozen ©️CC BY-SA 3.0

The comb, which is approximately 2.5 cm wide and 3.5 cm long, has wide-spaced teeth on one side, and narrowly spaced teeth on the other side. This shows that one side of the comb is used to untangle the hair and the other side is used to remove lice. Just like some of today’s lice combs.

Experts think the comb dates back to 1700 BC, based on paleographic analysis. Professor Yosef Garfinkel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem:

We tried twice radiometric dating at University of Oxford but there was not enough carbon in the samples.

The dating is based on paleographic analysis, that is the shape of the letters. We have the earliest form, which characterizes the Middle Bronze Age. The comb could also be from 1900s BC or 1800s BC, but in order to be on the safe side we suggest around 1700s BC. (November 11, 2022 – ULUKAYIN)

The fact that the comb is made of ivory indicates that the person using the comb is an individual of high social status. According to experts, ivory must have been imported from Egypt, since no elephants lived in Ancient Canaan. On the other hand, the ivory lice comb shows that even thousands of years ago, humans waged war against lice, and even high-status people were not protected from lice.

Oldest Sentence Written in First Alphabet

It is accepted that the first steps on the way to the invention of writing were taken in the historical Sumer region in Mesopotamia and in Egypt in the last half of the 4th millennium BC. However, these early writing systems consisted of pictograms and hieroglyphs, that is, they were not alphabetic.2

According to current information, the alphabetic writing system was first used in Ancient Canaan in the first half of the 2nd millennium BC. Tablets written in the first alphabet, also called “Canaanite script” or “proto-Sinaitic script ” have been found around Israel before. However, they consisted of only a few letters or words. Since the text on the comb in question is a complete sentence, it is defined as “the oldest sentence written in the first alphabet”.

The Canaanite script is considered the ancestor of the Phoenician, Hebrew and Ancient Arabic scripts.

  1. A Canaanite’s Wish to Eradicate Lice on an Inscribed Ivory Comb from Lachish“, Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology[]
  2. David STASAVAGE, “Biogeography, Writing, and the Origins of the State“, The Handbook of Historical Economics, ISBN: 9780128158746, Academic Press, 2021, p. 881-902[]