3,700-Year-Old Appeal Against Lice: Earliest(?) Alphabetic Inscription Discovered in Israel

The remarkable new discovery of a Middle Bronze Age ivory comb inscription from Lachish
The Lachish comb, with inscription
Dafna Gazit/Israel Antiquities Authority

A newly released discovery from Lachish has been announced: one of the earliest-known alphabetic inscriptions ever uncovered in Israel. “Until recently, no meaningful Canaanite inscriptions had been discovered in the Land of Israel, save only two or three words here and there,” the press release from Hebrew University states. “Now an amazing discovery presents an entire sentence in Canaanite, dating to about 1700 b.c.e. It is engraved on a small ivory comb and includes a spell against lice.”

Published in the Hebrew University’s Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology (jjar), this new inscription is detailed in a research paper titled “A Canaanite’s Wish to Eradicate Lice on an Inscribed Ivory Comb from Lachish.” The paper presents the discovery of the ivory, elephant-tusk head-lice comb, first uncovered in 2016. What wasn’t realized until closer study in December of 2021 was that this comb bore an etched inscription across its surface.

As the paper’s authors—Daniel Vainstub (the epigrapher who deciphered the inscription), Madeleine Mumcuoglu (who first noticed the inscription), Michael G. Hasel, Katherine Hesler, Miriam Lavi, Rivka Rabinovich, Yuval Goren and Yosef Garfinkel (with review by epigrapher Prof. Christopher Rollston)—reveal, the script on this comb notably constitutes “the very earliest stage of the alphabet’s development,” dating most likely to sometime during the later part of the Middle Bronze Age (c. 1700–1550 b.c.e.). The 17-letter proto-Semitic inscription on the comb reads (rather humorously, one might add):

“May this tusk root out the lice of the hai[r and the] beard”

Map of Tel Lachish and the excavation areas. The comb was found in Area AA.

The two-sided comb, whose teeth had all been broken off in antiquity, was initially discovered during the 2016 summer season of the Fourth Expedition to Lachish (2013–2017), led by Prof. Yosef Garfinkel, Michael Hasel and Martin Klingbeil, with a team from Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Southern Adventist University in the United States. The comb was discovered just northeast of the center of Tel Lachish, in a secondary-use pit with remains dating to the seventh to sixth centuries b.c.e. Unfortunately, despite the comb being made of organic material, all attempts thus far to carbon date the item have been futile “due to the poor preservation of carbon.” This leaves only paleographic means of dating (comparative analysis of the script style), against the wider picture of ancient occupation at Tel Lachish.

The conclusion of the authors is that the script of the comb closely matches a form found on several early Canaanite inscriptions, particularly what is known as the “Lachish dagger”—a tomb discovery from a secure context, associated with other goods dating to within the 17th–16th centuries b.c.e. “The archaeological horizon of the Lachish dagger fits the paleographic character of the comb inscription,” the authors write, also noting that the comb inscription “lack[s] later developments known from inscriptions dated to the 13th or 12th century b.c.e.

They also highlight that despite the comb being found in a later, secondary-context fill, the luxury ivory item was found not far from a Middle Bronze palace, situated within a fortress functioning during this period. “Our comb inscription, together with the dagger inscription, makes Lachish the only site so far that has yielded two Middle Bronze Age Canaanite inscriptions.”

Technical drawing of the comb

The authors therefore highlight the significance of Middle Bronze Lachish in the use and development of the early alphabetic script, which later diverged into the various forms found around the Levant during the Iron Age (such as Hebrew, Phoenician, Moabite, South Arabian, etc.). Indeed, the tenth chapter of the book of Joshua describes Lachish as one of the early, powerful Canaanite cities on the scene at the time of the Israelite conquest. To date, a total of 12 Middle-to-Late Bronze Age inscriptions have been uncovered at Lachish. The authors write, “No other site in the southern Levant has revealed so many inscriptions from the Bronze Age.”

They also note the finery of the inscription, which is notable for such an early period. “The engraver’s skill in successfully executing such tiny letters (1–3 mm wide) is a fact that from now on should be taken into account in any attempt to summarize and draw conclusions on literacy in Canaan in the Bronze Age.” They continue:

For the first time we have an entire verbal sentence written in the dialect spoken by the Canaanite inhabitants of Lachish, enabling us to compare this language in all its aspects with the other (indirect and partial) sources for it.

Aerial view of Tel Lachish
Emil Aladjem

One particularly notable feature of this new inscription is the use of the letter lamed (ל), used to introduce a direct object. This form is “generally considered characteristic of late Biblical material,” despite it “also occur[ring] in texts produced in the First Temple period like 2 Sam 3:30 … [and] probably also present in the Song of Deborah [Judges 5:13].” Rather than serving as cause to re-date these biblical texts to a much later period, however—“rather than being, as is generally assumed, a product of late Aramaic influence”—the “occurrence [of the particular use of this letter] in our inscription is now the earliest one attested in all the ancient languages of the region, and can contribute to any reassessment of the historical development of the verbal syntax in West Semitic languages.” The article continues to highlight other forms in the short inscription that are a match for biblical Hebrew. “In all its aspects the language of the inscription shows parallels with other known sources of the Canaanite dialects of the Late Bronze Age, including on the one hand the Canaano-Akkadian of the el-Amarna letters and on the other hand the most archaic strata of the Biblical Hebrew.”

Remains of a head louse nymph between the teeth of the comb

And as for the lice? Remains of such were found embedded within the roots of the comb’s teeth. And while this particular word on the comb for “lice” (qml) is not found in the biblical text—“the present occurrence of the word is the first one in the region,” in fact (with closer links further afield, to Arabic, Akkadian and Aramaic)—the plaguing creature (or a variant thereof) is, of course, well known from the biblical text describing the third plague of Egypt (Exodus 8). It was the reason that Egyptian priests, according to Herodotus’s Histories, were completely bald: “The priests shave their bodies all over every other day to guard against the presence of lice.” (You can read more about this in our article, “‘Against All the Gods of Egypt.’”) Evidently, this pestilential creature remained a problem for the Middle Bronze inhabitants of Lachish.

Prof. Garfinkel summarizes the comb inscription discovery thusly: “This is the first sentence ever found in the Canaanite language in Israel. … The comb inscription is direct evidence for the use of the alphabet in daily activities some 3,700 years ago. This is a landmark in the history of the human ability to write.”

Let the Stones Speak