Alphabet font: the ancient comb with a magic spell

Science alphabet font

A comb to find them, to bind them all

The ancient lice comb with the Tel Lachish spell

The ancient comb with the spell of Tel Lachish

Source: Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority

In Israel, the oldest sentence in an alphabet has been deciphered. The researchers were able to visualize and translate the words on a 3,800-year-old comb. The punishment is aimed at obnoxious small animals.

fThe part of the world that today includes Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, and Lebanon is so fundamental to the early history of the alphabet that archaeologists there decisively expand our knowledge every few decades. Such a moment has come again. At the Tel Lachish archaeological site, researchers have discovered the oldest written alphabetic sentence. It’s a spell meant to ward off lice.

Tel Lachish in southwest Israel is what remains of the Bronze Age city of Lachish. It was inhabited by Canaanites. Around 1800 BC, a high-ranking person was able to settle there. a comb made of valuable elephant ivory imported from Egypt. The inscription on the coat of arms reads: “May this tusk eradicate the lice from the hair and beard.”

Aerial view of Tel Lachish

The Tel Lachish site in southwestern Israel

Source: Emil Aladjem

View of the comb (Credit: Daniel Vainstub)

Drawing of the coat of arms and the letters

Source: Daniel Vainstub

The weapon was found in 2017 by a team from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tennessee-based Southern Adventist University. The inscription was almost invisible and was not made technically legible until 2022. According to the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology, it was deciphered by Ben-Gurion University Semitist Daniel Vainstub.

The discovery is significant because the oldest generally recognized relics in an alphabet to date date from the same period. But these are just individual invocations of the gods. For example, a Sphinx figurine now held in the British Museum in London features the word Ba’alat (Mistress) scratched.

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The Sphinx comes from Serabit El-Chadim in the Sinai Peninsula. There, Semitic workers, whom the Egyptians called “Amu” (Asiatics), gave birth around 1800 BC. BC Turquoises of. Here, in the winter of 1904/1905, the British Hilda and Flinders Petrie discovered about 30 inscriptions in an alphabet now called “Proto-Sinaitic” or “pictorial Canaanite”. The find and its decipherment disproved the earlier assumption that the Phoenicians had invented the alphabet.

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Since then, the alphabet is believed to have originated through cultural contact between Semites and Egyptians. In the interplay between Egyptian scribes and Semitic speakers, certain characters of hieroglyphic writing acquired phonetic value to write the Semitic language. For example, the ancestor of our A came from the bovine hieroglyph. Even today, the capital A looks upside down like a minimalist cattle head.

This ingenious invention, which is important in world history, drastically reduced the number of characters needed to write. Instead of learning hundreds or even thousands of characters, such as in hieroglyphics or Chinese, you could use between 20 and 30. No wonder this innovation, modified and adapted, spread westward to Greece, Rome, Germania and Rus’ and eastward to India.

It is interesting that the oldest evidence of Germanic runic writing, only about 2000 years old, was discovered on combs. This is no coincidence: hard materials such as ivory or horn survive thousands of years better than papyrus, bark or parchment.

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