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Biblical Archaeology Review 49:1, Spring 2023

Oldest Canaanite Sentence

The oldest written Canaanite sentence has been discovered at Lachish. The inscription, carved into an ivory comb, dates to around 1700 BCE, only a century after most scholars believe the alphabet was invented. Written in an archaic Proto-Canaanite script, the inscription sheds light on the early development of the alphabet and the daily life of Canaanites.

Although several Proto-Canaanite inscriptions have been found, with some even older than the Lachish comb, this is the oldest alphabetic inscription that contains a full sentence. It reads, “May this [ivory] tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard,” a fitting inscription to grace a comb. Remarkably, analysis of the comb provided evidence that this inscription, possibly a spell, was effective, as the remains of a louse were discovered on one of the comb’s teeth.

Crafted of elephant ivory, likely imported from Egypt, the comb would have been a prestige object, owned by a wealthy family. Although the teeth of the comb were broken off in antiquity, their bases remain. One side of the comb featured six thick teeth, used to untangle knots. The other side had 14 finer teeth, used to remove lice.

The ivory comb was excavated from a secondary deposit at Lachish. Because of this, it was not possible to date the comb according to other finds in the area. Instead, the comb’s date was determined through paleography (the form of the letters), which showed the inscription was very archaic.

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