The Ivory Comb Inscription (1700–1550 BCE)
Recent excavations of the ancient city of Lachish have uncovered one of the earliest known inscriptions from the ancient region of Canaan. On an ivory comb dating all the way back to the early second millennium BCE is incised an inscription wishing away lice from the hair and the beard (see Vainstub et al., 2022). From a linguistic standpoint, this inscription may be generally Northwest Semitic or Canaanite, though it is difficult to know specifics from such a brief extract of the language. Nevertheless, those knowledgable in Hebrew and related languages (e.g., Aramaic, Ugaritic) will notice numerous similarities. The inscription reads as follows—note that I simply use a Paleo-Hebrew script for the font, even though the letter signs in the actual inscription are somewhat different (if anyone has any unicode suggestions to better reflect letters like ‘s³’, etc. please let me know and I’ll update it!):
𐤉𐤕𐤔 𐤇𐤈𐤃 𐤋𐤒𐤌 𐤋𐤒𐤌
YTʃ ḤṬ Ḏ LQML ŚʿR WZQT
Transcription with Audio (Ancient Script)
|Ancient Script||Historical Pronunciation||Translation|
‘may root out!’
‘this ivory (comb)’
LQML Śʕ[R W]ZQT
li-qaml-i ɬaʕr-i wa-zuqt-i (OR wa-ðaqatt-i)
‘lice of hair and beard’
Given the fact that we know so little about the particular language of the inscription, the reconstructed pronunciations here are highly speculative. Nevertheless, it can be helpful for understanding the inscription to at least make an effort to vocalise it.
YTʃ = jattuʃ
The consonantal text YTʃ probably reflects a short prefix conjugation form of the root n-t-ʃ with assimilation of the /n/ to the following /t/: i.e., *jantuʃ → *jattuʃ. This is parallel to the Hebrew word נָתַשׁ-יִתֹּשׁ ‘to uproot’ (see Vainstub et al., 2022, 103). This spelling is significant because it indicates that /n/ assimilation was common in Canaanite languages at a very early stage.
ḤṬ = ħiṭṭ-u
The consonantal text ḤṬ is difficult due to a lack of early cognates. Vainstub et al. (2022, 103–104), however, draw on a later Mishnaic parallel, which is connected to teeth: e.g., חִיטָּיו הַחִיצּוֹנוֹת ‘its outer teeth (i.e., incisors)’ (mBek. 6.4); וְחִיטָּיו הַפְּנִימִיּוֹת ‘and its inner teeth (i.e., molars)’ (mBek. 6.12) (see also Bar-Asher 2015, 239–40). As such, they suggest that it may mean something like ‘ivory’ and be used metonymically for the comb. Given the dagesh in the ṭet, we may reconstruct a final geminated stem for this noun: i.e., /ħiṭṭ/. Given a number of questions about this form, however, the reconstruction is highly speculative. As the subject of the sentence, it would have the nominative case vowel /-u/.
Ḏ = ðuː
The form ðuː (in the nominative) was originally a relative marker in early Semitic, though it came to be used as a demonstrative (or demonstrative element) in a number of Semitic languages at a later date. Note, for example, Biblical Hebrew זֶה ‘this’ and Ugaritic hānādū ‘this’.
LQML = li-qamli
The noun QML meaning ‘lice’ has cognates elsewhere in Semitic (see Vainstub et al, 2022, 104–106). Note, for example, Arabic قَمْل qaml ‘lice’ and قَمْلَة qamla ‘louse’. We have opted for the pattern /qaml/ as a collective plural, but it could also be something else. Note that the preposition L- is vocalised with an /i/ vowel, though it could equally be an /a/ vowel. As in Aramaic, the preposition L- marks the direct object of the verb. The noun /qaml-/ has a case vowel of /i/ to indicate genitive after a preposition.
Śʕ[R = ɬaʕ[ri
The root ś-ʿ-r or š-ʿ-r is common in Semitic with the meaning of ‘hair’. It is not entirely clear how the original consonant should be pronounced since we do not know much about the particular dialect or language of the author of the inscription. If it had not merged yet with another consonant, the first sign of this word possibly reflected the lateral fricative /ɬ/. As such, we have vocalised as /ɬaʕr-i/ with an /i/ case vowel to indicate genitive as the second noun in a construct phrase.
W]ZQT = wa-zuqt-i OR wa-zaqatti
The conjunction W probably represents /wa-/. The word for ‘beard’ has parallels elsewhere in Semitic: e.g., Arabic ذَقْن ḏaqn ‘beard’ and Hebrew זָקָן ‘beard’. If this is the word here, then it may reflect something like *zaqant-i → *zaqatt-i with assimilation of /n/. But there is a problem with this theory. The original root of ‘beard’ is ḏ-q-n. However, the fact that we have a spelling with Ḏ earlier in the inscription but Z here suggests that it may be derived from another root. The root ZQT or ZQ + feminine/formative T, on the other hand, is attested in Akkadian meaning ‘chin’. We may thus posit that a noun like /zuqt-i/ here (with genitive /i/ case marker) with the meaning of ‘beard’ was intended (see Vainstub et al, 2022, 106–107). At the same time, it is not impossible that the inscriber would exhibit inconsistent spelling for the same sound (note a similar phenomenon in Ugaritic). I would like to return to this question at some point, as I think there may be more to be said here, but for the time being I have vocalised it as suggested by Vainstub et al.
Bar-Asher, Moshe. 2015. תורת הצורות של לשון המשנה. Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik; The Academy of the Hebrew Language.
Lambdin, Thomas O., and John Huehnergard. 2000. The Historical Grammar of Classical Hebrew. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University.
Suchard, Benjamin D. 2020. The Development of the Biblical Hebrew vowels: Including a Concise Historical Morphology. Leiden: Brill.
Vainstub, Daniel, Madeleine Mumcuoglu, Michael G. Hasel, Katherine M. Hesler, Miriam Lavi, Rivka Rabinovich, Yuval Goren, and Yosef Garfinkel. 2022. “A Canaanite’s Wish to Eradicate Lice on an Inscribed Ivory Comb from Lachish.” Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology 2: 76–119.