Southern archeologists uncover ancient lice comb featuring oldest alphabetic sentence ever discovered

The ivory comb.
(Photo credits: Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority)
The ivory comb. (Photo credits: Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority)

On the first day of the Fourth Expedition to Lachish’s 2016 excavation season, Katherine Hesler, a Southern Adventist University student at the time, held a curious item. The object, which had just been discovered, was fully encrusted in dirt and resembled a bone. Yet Hesler could tell there was something special about it.

“We were still getting started with the project, still cleaning up, getting ready. … [The comb] was in the western corner of the square, and we hadn’t even dug that much,” Hesler, who was the square supervisor, recounted in an interview with the Accent. “ … I remember holding it in my hand. It was not a perfect square … sort of a squared-off piece, which is unusual. I definitely did not know what it was, but it was a curious thing. It was obviously something unique.”

Hesler placed the strange object in a bone bag to be studied by the team’s zooarchaeologist, Ed Maher. Later that day, he contacted the digging team to tell them that the object was actually an ivory lice comb. 

“There weren’t a lot of bones to analyze, so he immediately went to work,” Michael Hasel, Southern archeology professor, said in an interview. “ … By that evening, he contacted us and said, ‘Look, this thing that you have in this bone bag is not a bone; it’s actually ivory,’ which is technically a type of bone. He says, ‘It’s elephant ivory. I’ve cleaned it, and it looks like it was an ancient comb. I can see the remains on both ends of the actual teeth that were broken off in antiquity.’”

Hasel is co-director of the Fourth Expedition to Lachish, a five-season excavation of Tel-Lachish, which was the second most important city in Judah after Jerusalem. Southern is a partner in the expedition, which occurred from 2013 to 2017. 

When the comb was discovered, the team was excited, said Hasel, but the artifact, like hundreds of other artifacts found that season in Tel-Lachish, including sling stones, arrow heads, pieces of mail armor and loom weights, was sent to a lab in Jerusalem to wait for post-processing. 

A Breakthrough Discovery

Unbeknownst to Hasel and Hesler at the time, an inscription was engraved on the comb. Earlier this year, Madeleine Mumcuoglu, a parasitologist and archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, found the inscription, and soon after, Daniel Vainstub, a semitic epigrapher from Ben Gurion University, deciphered the inscription and realized it is the first known, fully decipherable alphabetic sentence ever discovered. According to Hasel, it consists of 17 letters written in the Canaanite alphabet, dating to about 1700 B.C., and translates to, “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.”

“Not only is it sort of funny and sort of an intimate snapshot of somebody’s real-world experience in a really unique way, but this is the oldest alphabetic sentence

that we’ve found.”

News of the discovery took off on Nov. 10. Soon after, publications around the world, including The New York Times, ran stories about it. 

“To find an artifact from 3,700 years ago is incredible, but to find one that has a complete sentence is a breakthrough discovery,” wrote Southern President Ken Shaw in a statement to the Accent. “I am very proud of Dr. Hasel and his leadership in working with professor Yosef Garfinkel from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and engaging our students in uncovering the many mysteries of ancient Biblical times.”

Hasel realized the significance of the inscription when he received the epigrapher’s analysis confirming that the writing’s script dated back to the second millennium. After the story came out, however, he was hit by the magnitude of the discovery.

“It kind of sunk in … when we started getting phone calls through all hours of the night, particularly because of the time change between Israel and here, and Europe and here,” he said.

According to Hasel, the discovery has been rewarding for Southern students, as several hundred worked on the dig site. Their schedule was grueling, Hasel said, with a 4:30 a.m. wake-up time and 15-hour workday. He described this significant discovery as payoff for the excavating team’s hard work and sweat.

“Students are super excited,” Hasel said. “ … I’m getting emails from former students and colleagues in different parts of the world [saying], ‘Look, [the news] hit in Denmark,’ ‘Look it hit in Austria,’ ‘Look at this news item here.’ … [However], the news is up for a day or two, and then it’s over. People move on to the next thing. So what’s going to be important is the scientific report that scholars are now going to be able to look at.”

Hasel added that the worldwide attention given to this discovery could bring an increase in attention, including increased funding and student interest, to Southern and its Institute of Archeology, of which he is the director. 

Michael Hasel and Katherine Hesler in area where comb was found (Photo credit: Zachary Kast, Fourth Expedition to Lachish)

The Path to Discovery

When Mumcuoglu first began studying the artifact, she did so under a microscope. It was not until she took photos of the comb with her iPhone and zoomed in that she saw the engraving. 

Hasel explained that it was not unusual for the discovery of the inscription to take place five years after the comb was found.

“They say for every season you spend in the field, you have to at least figure on two years of publishing the data,” Hasel said. “So, for a five-season excavation, it’s 10 years of publication minimum. And we’re in the middle of that right now.”

After Mumcuoglu found the inscription, she contacted Hasel, who then called Hesler, who is pursuing a doctorate in archeology at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. At the time, however, she was in the Chattanooga area.

The professor and his former student met in Hackman Hall to study records of the 2016 excavation. Hasel brought database documents. Hesler brought her field notes. They spread the various papers out on a table and began intently working to determine the discovery location of the comb. They succeeded, and by doing so provided helpful historical context to the artifact that would later be published in the team’s scientific article.

Hesler later explained that the location of the artifact’s discovery was not easy to pinpoint.

“It was actually a little more difficult to pin down exactly where it was found because it was found in a pit,” she said. “ … These pits were probably from right before the destruction caused by Nebuchadnezzar. So, we basically just went through all the notes and found exactly where it had been located.”

“[Hesler] is a very meticulous archeologist,” Hasel said. “She had made a notation in her notebook — as she was supposed to do — but she did something beyond what she was normally to do, I think, and she actually marked where in the square [the comb] was found, just in a drawing she did by hand out in the field. That helped us tremendously.”

Inscription of the comb. (Photo credit: Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority)

The Significance

Hasel said the comb, which comes from the Middle Bronze Age, was a surprise, as the expedition’s goal in Tel-Lachish was to study the growth of the Judean kingdom through much later years. 

“What made this discovery so exciting is that we weren’t working in a Middle Bronze Age context,” Hasel said. “ … The fact that we actually found an artifact that dates back to that time period, at least based on the scripts and the shape of the script, is very significant.”

He and Hesler both explained the discovery’s significant contribution to studies of the alphabet.

“This is huge because not only is it sort of funny and sort of an intimate snapshot of somebody’s real-world experience in a really unique way, but this is the oldest alphabetic sentence that we’ve found,” Hesler said, “which not only is unique, but it also shows us that writing and then literacy was probably more common earlier than we may have thought.”

“We now have an inscription that is 1,400 years older than the time of Alexander the Great.”

Hasel said the invention of the alphabet was one of three major innovations that changed communication forever, the others being the inventions of the printing press and internet. The alphabet was a breakthrough in literacy, he said, as writing systems beforehand, such as hieroglyphics and cuneiform, were enormously complex.  

“The invention of the alphabet … was the most important contribution that the Canaanites or the Semitic people or whoever did this in ancient times gave us,” Hasel said.

He added that hyper-critical scholars claim the Hebrew language was invented during the time of Alexander the Great, around 332 B.C. If that statement were true, it would discredit the historicity of the biblical account. A Southern archeology team discovered ancient Hebrew inscriptions in Khirbet Qeiyafa in 2008 and 2012, helping disprove that statement, said Hasel. Yet, the comb’s inscription further strengthens the argument that parts of the Old Testament were not written hundreds of years after the events they describe.

“Now, we have an alphabetic script that is not Hebrew but is using what later would develop into the Hebrew alphabet, the same alphabet,” Hasel said. “… So we now have an inscription that is 1,400 years older than the time of Alexander the Great.”

Hasel continued to emphasize the importance of the role private Christian universities play in Biblical archeology.

“Why are we working in the Middle East? Why are we working in Israel? We’re Americans,” Hasel said. “ … I think first and foremost it’s because of our love for the Bible and our mission as Christians to understand that world better. That is what is going to keep this field going in the future. … It’s a field that’s not going to survive unless there are institutions like Southern that continue to invest and want to do those kinds of things.”

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