Nit-picking


Engraved elephant ivory artifact, courtesy of the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology

The oldest complete written sentence has been identified. It’s written in the Canaanite language, about 1,700 years ago. There are earlier writings, but they are simply names or sometimes the owner of the object.

This artifact was found at Tel Lachish in Israel, once a major Canaanite city-state in the second millennium BCE. The artifact measures just 3.5 by 2.5 centimeters (roughly 1.38 by 1 inches). The artifact was excavated in 2016, but it wasn’t until more recently that the inscription was discovered. The inscription reads,

Drawing of artifact’s inscription

As the numbers show, lettering is right to left. When that ancient engraver reached the right edge, he rotated the artifact 180 degrees and continued. The engraver ran out of room again (“Plan ahead,” anyone?) and had to engrave the 17th character below the 16th.

The translation? Translated, the inscription reads, “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.” The artifact is a lice comb carved from an elephant tusk, and the wish expressed in the inscription removes almost all doubt. The artifact’s purpose was confirmed when the authors searched for evidence of head lice on the comb under a microscope and found some louse remains on the second tooth, still in the nymph stage of development.

The oldest known written sentence is all about dealing with head lice. Says it all, really. Technology rising to meet the challenges of the 18th Century BCE.

(Human head lice have been around a long time, long enough to have evolved into a separate species. Nits, for readers whose life experiences have not included lice, are the eggs that adult female lice glue to shafts of human hairs. They’re tough to remove; it takes a fine-toothed comb, a lot of tugging and a lot of patience. “Nitpicking,” in the pejorative sense of over-focused on trivial details, is a relatively new meaning, tracing to 1951. Before that, the meaning was literal.)

4 thoughts on “Nit-picking

  1. My thoughts when I read this article and saw this object was that it reveals much more than just the sentence that has everyone talking. First of all, there were elephants, Syrian elephants in the middle east during this period. They were a subspecies of Asian Elephant. They were possibly introduced. If so, someone drove elephants over from somewhere in the East. There was clearly an ivory trade. There was metalurgy to make the saw or chisel that cut the block from the tusk. More metal tools to punch this comb out of the block and then files to cut the teeth. A metal scribe to gouge the inscription. A human scribe to compose it. A whole series of trades and workshops produced this object and it all existed in an integrated network 4000 years ago. My other thought was how many times HAPPY BIRTHDAY on a card has a squished “Y” because I couldn’t space out the letters.

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