Earliest known alphabetic script

A recently discovered inscription on an ivory comb is the earliest known example of alphabetic writing. The comb was found in Lachish (Israel) and bears an inscription in an early Canaanite script. The 17 letters, in early pictographic style, form seven words expressing a plea against lice.

A report on this find is in A Canaanite’s Wish to Eradicate Lice on an Inscribed Ivory Comb from Lachish, Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology (2021-2022). jjar2_art4_lachish_p76-119_2022-10-12_01.pdf (huji.ac.il)

The find

The comb was found in Lachish in 2016, but the very shallowly incised inscription wasn’t noticed until December 2021.

Lachish was a Canaanite city-state in the 2nd millennium BCE, the second most important city in the Judean Kingdom after Jerusalem in the Iron Age, and a major city in the Persian and Early Hellenistic eras. The siege and conquest of Lachish by the Assyrians in 701 BCE is recorded in palace reliefs (the Lachish reliefs), now displayed in the British Museum in London.

The comb

The comb is made from elephant ivory. It is 3.66 cm wide and 2.51 cm high. This comb, like most such objects known from excavations, had teeth on both sides. All the teeth were broken in antiquity, although their bases are still visible today.

The 6 thick teeth on one side were used to untangle knots in the hair. The 14 fine teeth on the other side were employed to remove lice and their eggs. There are remains of head lice on the 2nd tooth.

The comb (Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority)

There were no elephants in Canaan in historical periods. So, ivory combs must have been imported from elsewhere, probably from Egypt. Egyptian fine-tooth ivory combs are already known from the Predynastic era. Three other combs are also known from Lachish.

The authors suggest that the comb dates from the later part of the Middle Bronze Age, around 1700–1550 BCE.

The inscription

The inscription contains 17 tiny letters, varying in width from 1 to 3 mm, engraved on the not-completely-smooth surface of the comb. The letters form seven words that for the first time provide a complete reliable sentence in a Canaanite dialect, and written in the Canaanite script. Most of the letters survive to some degree, although letters 13 and 14 are badly damaged.

In the 1st row, the letters run from right to left, becoming progressively smaller and lower. On reaching the edge of the comb, the engraver turned the comb through 180° and wrote the 2nd row from left to right. Because of this rotation, both rows start on the same side of the comb. Both rows are placed with the heads of the letters in the middle of the comb and the bases of the letters facing the teeth. The final letter of the inscription sits below the last letter of the 2nd row.

The letters

For each letter of the inscription, the report discusses what sound that letter stood for. They identify the script as an alphabet that provides a letter for each consonant but does not provide letters for vowels. This is also how Hebrew and Arabic scripts work.   

The text

The report concludes that the inscription says: ytš ḥṭ ḏ l qml śʿ[r] zqt

The authors interpret the text as saying ‘may this tusk root out the lice of the hai[r and the] beard’.

The following table summarises the author’s conclusions on what each word in the text means. The report explains how the authors reach their conclusions.

WordMeaning
ytš‘root out’, ‘to remove’
ḥṭpossibly tooth (or tusk)—for the material the comb was made from
this
lgrammatical form preceding a direct object
qmlcollective noun: ‘lice’
śʿ[r]hair
zqtbeard

The language

The Canaanite language (or languages) was a member of the Northwest Semitic branch of the Semitic family of languages. One other important, but now extinct, member of this branch was Phoenician (Punic/ Carthaginian). Today, the only living Canaanite language is Hebrew.

The Canaanite languages were the earliest historically attested group of languages to use an alphabet. Earlier writing in the Middle East used cuneiform logographic / syllabic writing systems.

The first phase of Canaanite, and of its alphabet, is known only from a few inscriptions found in:

  • Egypt: at the turquoise mine of Serabiṭ el-Khadem in southern Sinai and rock engravings in Wadi el-Hôl near Luxor. Dates suggested for these between the 14th or 15th century BCE and the 19th century BCE.
  • Canaan: pottery shards from Gezer and Shechem and a bronze dagger from Lachish. It is unclear whether these are earlier or later than the examples from Egypt. Apart from a few letters or perhaps a word or two, no inscription predating the 13th century BCE has been found in Canaan. From the 13th and 12th centuries BCE more inscriptions (about 15) are known, mostly from Lachish. These inscriptions include a few letters, and sometimes a clear word. One inscribed jar known seems to bear a dedicatory text.

Grammar

The authors identify some grammatical characteristics of this brief text:

  • The word order in the phrase verb-subject-object is very common in West Semitic, including Biblical Hebrew and Canaano-Akkadian (the language used by the scribes of the city-state rulers in Canaan in some letters from the 14th century BCE). In regular Akkadian, the verb normally comes at the end of the sentence.
  • qml śʿ[r w] zqt ‘the lice of the hai[r and the] beard’ is built in a ‘construct state’ of one noun designating the item possessed, followed by 2 nouns designating the possessors. This construction is common in Biblical Hebrew.
  • The definite subject ḥṭ ḏ and the definite objects śʿ[r w]zqt, lack an article, as is usual in archaic texts and poetry in Biblical Hebrew and in Ugaritic.
  • This is the earliest known use of a marker (l) to show that the next word is the direct object.
  • ytš is probably a verbal ‘volitive’ expressing the wish that the lice will be rooted out. This is probably a shortened form like the Biblical Hebrew jussive and similar jussive forms used in Canaano-Akkadian. Or it may be similar to the Biblical Hebrew cohortative or Akkadian ‘ventive’. The inscription cannot help choose these alternatives because this alphabet shows only consonants, not vowels.

The right name for the job?

This report is about a comb. One of the co-authors is from Lipscomb University. A happy coincidence?

2 comments

  1. Agree – fascinating story. Amazing what science can do these days.

    Since this is a language blog, I offer a tiny grammatical comment on the title of the published article. The title is:

    “A Canaanite’s Wish to Eradicate Lice on an Inscribed Ivory Comb from Lachish”.

    That wording could be interpreted as suggesting the lice to be eradicated were on the ivory comb rather than in the hair. Might have been better to rewrite as:

    “A Canaanite’s Wish, inscribed on an Ivory Comb from Lachish, to Eradicate Lice”.

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