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In July 2021, Israeli archaeologists announced the discovery of a 1,600-year-old ivory comb from the Byzantine period, which featured an inscription in a Canaanite dialect written in Canaanite script,* which would make it indeed a significant finding. The translation reads: “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.” The comb was unearthed during an excavation in the ancient city of Hippos-Sussita, which is located on a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee in present-day Israel.
* Canaanite languages are a subfamily of the Northwest Semitic languages, which also include Hebrew, Phoenician, and Ugaritic. These languages were spoken in the ancient Levant region, which included present-day Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, and parts of Jordan and Syria.
Canaanite script, also known as Phoenician or Proto-Canaanite script, is an early alphabetic script that emerged in the Levant around the 16th century BCE. This script is considered the precursor to many other writing systems, such as Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic.
The inscription on the comb being in a Canaanite dialect and script, would provide valuable insights into the language, culture, and interactions among different communities in the region during the time period. It could also shed light on how different languages influenced one another in the ancient Levant and how the Canaanite script evolved over time.
Carbon dating, or radiocarbon dating, is a widely-used dating method that relies on the decay of a radioactive isotope of carbon, known as carbon-14. This technique is generally applicable to organic materials, such as wood, bone, or plant remains, as they contain carbon from the atmosphere, which is absorbed during their lifetime. When an organism dies, the carbon-14 it contains starts to decay at a known rate, and this decay can be measured to determine the age of the sample.
However, carbon dating may prove futile in some cases, such as with the ancient comb mentioned earlier. The comb is made of ivory, which is a dense material primarily composed of calcium phosphate and does not contain carbon in significant amounts. Since carbon dating relies on the presence and decay of carbon-14, this method would not be suitable for determining the age of the ivory comb.
In the absence of direct dating methods like carbon dating, researchers often rely on indirect methods to estimate the age of artifacts. These methods can include analyzing the artifact’s style, motifs, and craftsmanship, as well as examining the context in which the artifact was found, such as its association with other datable materials or its stratigraphic position within an archaeological site.
In the case of the ancient comb, if researchers believe it was made around 1700 BCE, they may have reached this conclusion based on factors such as the style and design of the comb, similarities with other artifacts from the same period, or the archaeological context in which it was discovered. Additionally, they might have compared the comb with other artifacts that have been securely dated using methods like radiocarbon dating or other techniques, such as dendrochronology or thermoluminescence dating, which are applicable to different types of materials.
The Comb and Its Condition
The comb, though worn and missing its teeth, still exhibits remnants indicating that it originally featured six broad-spaced teeth for untangling hair on one side and 14 narrowly-spaced teeth for eliminating lice and eggs on the other side.
Additional proof of the comb’s function was obtained when researchers, using a microscope, identified the resilient external membranes of half-millimeter-long nymph stages of head lice. The inscription on the comb comprises seven words, forming the first fully deciphered sentence in a Canaanite dialect, penned in Canaanite script, according to the researchers’ publication in the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology. Historically, combs were crafted from materials such as wood, bone, and ivory. However, ivory was a costly, imported luxury item since elephants were not native to Canaan during that period.
The earliest writing systems originated in Mesopotamia and Egypt around 3200 BCE, but these systems were not alphabetic in nature. Instead, they relied on hundreds of distinct symbols to represent words or syllables, necessitating years of learning to master, explained Christopher Rollston, a professor of Northwest Semitic languages at George Washington University in the United States.
“The fact that this inscription is about ordinary life is especially fascinating,” Rollston said. “Throughout human history lice have been a perennial problem. And this inscription nicely reveals that even the rich and famous in ancient times were not exempt from such problems. We can only hope that this inscribed comb was useful in doing that which it says it was supposed to do – root out some of these pesky insects.”
The Significance of the Discovery
The discovery of the comb is significant for several reasons. First, the presence of a full sentence engraved on an artifact from this time period is quite rare. Most inscriptions found on objects from the Byzantine era are shorter and typically consist of only names or initials. The inscription on the comb, which provides a complete sentence, offers a glimpse into the daily life, hygiene practices, and personal grooming habits of the people who lived in the region during that time.
Second, the material used for the comb, ivory, suggests that it belonged to a person of high social status, as ivory was a luxury item in the Byzantine period. The comb’s intricate design and the fact that it was made from a single piece of ivory further emphasize its value and importance.
The city of Hippos-Sussita, where the comb was discovered, was a Greco-Roman city founded around the 2nd century BCE and was part of the Decapolis, a group of ten cities in the eastern Roman Empire. The city was eventually abandoned after a series of earthquakes in the 8th century CE. The ongoing archaeological excavations in the area have provided valuable insights into the city’s history, culture, and inhabitants.
In conclusion, the discovery of the ancient comb with the unique inscription is an exciting find for archaeologists, as it offers a rare glimpse into the daily life and personal grooming habits of people who lived in the Byzantine period, as well as their craftsmanship and use of luxury materials like ivory.
EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored over 200+ books. In addition, Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).