What is it?
This lice comb, made of elephant ivory and measuring around 3.5cm by 2.5cm, was found in Lachish, Israel. The comb dates to c.3,700 years ago, and has teeth on both sides, much like the lice combs still sold today. Many of the comb’s teeth were broken in antiquity, but originally one side had six thick teeth – used to untangle knots in the hair – while the other had 14 fine teeth and was used to remove lice and their eggs. The central part of the comb is worn down from being held during use. Most significantly, however, the comb bears an inscription in Canaanite: 17 letters forming seven words, which read ‘May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard’.
Where was it found, and when?
The comb was discovered at Tel Lachish in 2016, during the fourth season of excavations by a team from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Southern Adventist University in the United States. Lachish was a major Canaanite city-state in the 2nd millennium BC, and to-date ten Canaanite inscriptions have been found here, more than any other site in Israel, but this is the first known example of an entire sentence. On its discovery, the comb was examined for the presence of lice or louse DNA – and the remains of a louse was identified on the comb’s second tooth – but the inscription is so shallowly engraved that it remained unnoticed until later post-processing work in December 2021.
Why does it matter?
The comb itself offers an insight into aspects of everyday life – like haircare and dealing with lice – that are not often recorded. Elephants were not found in Canaan at the time, so the ivory object must have been imported, probably from nearby Egypt. This suggests that it was a high-status item: clearly even the wealthy suffered from lice.
However, the comb’s true value comes from its engraving. Until now, inscriptions found in the Canaanite alphabet have been limited to two or three words; this is the first meaningful Canaanite inscription found in Israel. The discovery of a full sentence is remarkable, offering valuable new insight into the archaic form of the language. This is also the first example found in the region of an inscription referring to the purpose of the object on which it was written, rather than ownership or dedicatory inscriptions. The skill of the engraver, who was able to produce tiny letters ranging from 1mm to 3mm wide, provides important information about literacy in Canaan in the Bronze Age. However, the fact that the letters are not uniform in size reveals a very human mistake: in some places the craftsperson appears to have slightly misjudged the space required, and at the end of the second row they have been obliged to squeeze the final letter on to a separate line below.
SEE FOR YOURSELF
The results of recent investigations into the comb have been published in the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology (https:// doi.org/10.52486/01.00002.4).