Archaeologists excavated this engraved ivory comb at an ancient site in Israel.
Enlarge / Archaeologists excavated this engraved ivory comb at an ancient site in Israel.

It wasn't until last December that someone realized the comb had an inscription using early pictures of the first alphabet. According to a new paper published in the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology, the inscription was written to prevent head lice.

Yosef Garfinkel is an archaeologist with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In Ugarit in Syria, there are people who write in a different script than the one used in the US. The Egyptian documents mention the cities, as well as the letters that were written in Akkadian. Some 3,700 years ago, the use of the alphabet in daily activities was proven by the comb inscription. This is a big deal in the history of writing.

The earliest writing systems in Mesopotamia and Egypt used symbols instead of a real alphabet around 5000 years ago. So few inscriptions have survived that predate the 13th century BCE that little is known about this first alphabet. Garfinkel et al. wrote that most writing was done on decaying materials. The city-state and surrounding region are thought to have played a leading role in the alphabet's early history.


The ivory comb was unearthed in the summer of 2016 and much of the current excavation work took place between the summer of 2012 and the summer of 2017: It was found in the highest part of the site, near the Solar Shrine, an Iron Age palace-fort, and a Late Bronze Age palace.

Aerial view of Tel Lachish, the archaeological site where the ivory comb was found
Enlarge / Aerial view of Tel Lachish, the archaeological site where the ivory comb was found

The comb is 3.5 by 2.5 centimeters, with teeth on both sides, and only the bases remain. One side had thicker teeth, the better to untangle knots, while the other side had 14 teeth that were better at removing eggs from hair and beards. The authors think someone's fingers may have caused the erosion at the comb's center.

The authors used a number of different methods to confirm that the comb is made of ivory. The team sent a sample from the comb to the University of Oxford's laboratory, but it was too old to be dated.

A seven-word sentence is formed by 17 letters that are damaged. According to the authors, the letters are not well-aligned and the letters become smaller and lower in the first row. The second row of the engraved comb was engraved from left to right. The last letter is engraved just below the last letter in the second row because the engraver ran out of room. The small size of the lettering made it necessary for the engraver to be skilled.

Drawing of the comb's inscription
Enlarge / Drawing of the comb's inscription

The inscription says "may this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard" It is the first discovery in the region where the actual purpose of the object is mentioned in the inscription. The purpose was confirmed when the authors searched for evidence of head lice on the comb under a microscope and found some remains on the second tooth. The climate of Lachish isn't suitable for the preservation of head lice.

Christopher Rollston, an expert in Semitic languages and literature at George Washington University who was not involved in the study, said that early alphabetic inscriptions are usually just a few letters long. We can only hope that this comb was useful in helping to remove some of the insects that are annoying.

The Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology was published in 1992. About DOIs is a summary of the information on the website.

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