A Canaanite’s Wish to Eradicate Lice.

A Canaanite’s Wish to Eradicate Lice on an Inscribed Ivory Comb from Lachish” (Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology 2 [2022]: 76-119), by Daniel Vainstub, Madeleine Mumcuoglu, Michael G. Hasel, Katherine M. Hesler, Miriam Lavi, Rivka Rabinovich, Yuval Goren, and Yosef Garfinkel, might seem to the profane eye much ado about a few words scratched on a broken comb, but the few words are very interesting (as, I gather, is the comb to those whose remit, unlike mine, goes beyond the linguistic). The abstract is strikingly short:

An inscription in early Canaanite script from Lachish, incised on an ivory comb, is presented. The 17 letters, in early pictographic style, form seven words expressing a plea against lice.

The body of the paper begins with a discussion of dating and context, proceeds to a detailed description of the comb (made from elephant ivory), and on p. 90 gets to what interests me, the inscription:

The inscription contains 17 tiny letters that vary in width from 1 to 3 mm, engraved on the not-completely-smooth surface of the comb. The letters form seven words that for the first time provide us with a complete reliable sentence in a Canaanite dialect, written in the Canaanite script.

On pp. 91-102 the individual letters are analyzed (“our letter is most probably the first known example of the Canaanite letter ś”), pp. 103-107 deal with the vocabulary, and pp. 107-108 the grammar. I was particularly interested in the word qml:

A collective noun “lice” based on Arabic قَمْلَة, Akkadian, and Aramaic, all with this meaning. In Aramaic the word occurs in the Sefire inscription (iA:31) “an ant’s mouth, a moth, and a louse (קמל)” (Gibson 1975: 30–31, 40), although in later dialects the word underwent metathesis: קלם, קלמא, קלמה, קלמתא. In Akkadian it is attested from Old Akkadian onwards with the same metathesis as in Aramaic and with a slight phonetic change: the q of the word lost its emphatic condition and shifted to k kalmatu (CAD Vol. 8, K: 86–87). In Sabaean it comes both as qml and qlm (Biella 2004: 457–458).

The word is not hitherto attested in Hebrew, Ugaritic, or Phoenician, and the present occurrence of the word is the first one in the region.

The Arabic word is at Wiktionary, though of course with no etymology. The inscription is being discussed at the Log. Thanks, Bonnie!

Comments

  1. There’s a lot of interest there. For example, ḥṭ חט ‘tusk’ was previously known only from Mishnaic Hebrew. There are a lot of Mishnaic words with no antecedent, and for many of them it’s an open question whether they are old Hebrew words which escaped attestation, or a later borrowing or internal innovation.

    They thank Christopher Rollston for reviewing the paper. That’s encouraging, though I don’t know what he wrote. Rollston is the foremost smiter of dubious inscriptions in recent years. If he liked this one, it’s a good sign.

  2. It is indeed — thanks for the context and additional info!

  3. 1mm! (but I don’t see 1 mm letters. The comb is ~3 cm wide, each tooth must be 2mm and I don’t see letters that are more narrow).

  4. Letter #6 (in fig. 18) is about 1.3 mm at its widest. Tiny (heh).

  5. Given that the surface is imperfect, it would be nice if there was a way to distinguish scratches and dots made by the graver’s tool from other scratches. It is clearly an inscription, but it is not clear which strokes belong to letters.
    E.g. this unknown letter: does it have two dots (eyes? nipples?) or one dot?

  6. Stu Clayton says

    a plea against lice

    I read it as “a desire for more cows”.

  7. I’m with Mr. Y, for me the most interesting thing is the appearance of חט in the sense of “tooth,” which elsewhere is only attested to in the Mishnah Bechoros 6:4. I’m currently collaborating on a new commentary to the Mishnah and I was so excited about this that I emailed my boss on Friday afternoon.

  8. Trond Engen says

    ytš ḥṭ ḏ lqml śʿ[r w]zqt

    Thanks. What we can learn from 17 tiny letters!

    I have no reason to doubt the conclusions, but I’ll still note that the reason so much can be learned is that hardly a single word could be read straightforwardly based on what was already known. That’s exciting, but it may also make it vulnerable. Much seems to hinge on the parsing and interpretation of letters 3-6.

    Stu: I read it as “a desire for more cows”

    Camels, one would think. The semantic shift of qml “louse” -> “camel” probably happened with the prohibition against shaving.

  9. They assert that the engraver flipped the comb to write the second line. And I can’t contradict them. But doesn’t that mean they’ve inverted the Lachish comb rendering of letter s in Table 7? Not promising.

    I agree that Rollston’s praise is reassuring. Worth noting he has a horse in the race. I find the Goldwasser thesis a little silly. That Serabit el Khadim is the birthplace of the alphabet, where it was invented by illiterate miners who didnt know the Egyptian words the symbols represented, just bc we haven’t (yet) found many other examples. And that it’s primary use for centuries was as a way for people who had learned the alphabet “orally” to write their names and little else. Sure the examples of early letters we have are variable. But does anyone really believe that prompted only by *hearing* the word yod=hand/arm, disparate people would reliably produce something that even vaguely looked like the letters in Table 3, variable though they are, rather than any number of other ways of portraying an arm?

    But her theory has been given a lot of respect.

    This paper seems written in part to refute it.

    The weakness is in the dating by paleography of an object found in a context that would suggest a date a full millennium later, after the failure of efforts to date the materials. It’s not clear to me how paleography, dependent on just a handful of examples, themselves variable and subject to archaizing tendencies, could establish a date within a range tighter than maybe 400 years. But “15th-18th c. BCE” wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as “contemporary with Serabit el Khadim.”

    Here’s a quote:
    >dramatic claims have been so very common during recent years, and the end result is almost always the same: the dramatic and sensational claims crumble under the weight of scrutiny, and then more sober conclusions rise to the fore as the most compelling.

    That’s from Rollston’s blog, about a different recent find. But I think it’s applicable to the lice comb.

  10. Rya, oops. I did not notice that the suggested ś is upside down… Thanks.

    I’m not sure if it makes their comparison in the table any more or less convincing, but I did not notice it:(

  11. > I’m not sure if it makes their comparison in the table any more or less convincing

    🙂

    My favorite comparison is Table 5:
    > Both letters (from the comb) are clearly semi-rounded non-coiled lameds executed by two curving strokes

    One mustn’t be distracted by the fact that every other lamed exemplar they offer is coiled, and that a semicircle isn’t a great match for something coiled. Nor by the fact that one of the curving strokes doesn’t actually curve.

    “Clearly” is doing an underpants gnomes level of work there.

    To be fair, coiled may not be the apt word. But all other exemplars have variable curvature utterly unlike the two Lachesh comb postulates.

    Just realizing that the el-Hol and SKh 357 lameds are not similar, but identical. They must have inadvertently pasted the same image. Forget peer review. Was this even edited?

  12. Actually modern inscription on objects (other than “made in China” or “for a good girl“) can be thoughtful.

    Like : “knowledge is in the heart – not in plenitude of books; greatness is in oneself – not its noble pedigree” (Arabic to Russian to English. A book chest in Dagestan). Or во мне твоя болезнь (lit. in me your illness) – a translation of a German inscription on a vessel for strong alcohol. Someone told the translation to me when I was 6 but I could not read Fraktur so I don’t know the German original.

    Jameson (whiskey) obviously has “sine metu”.
    Together with “Guinness is good for you” I find it agreable (except that one episode when I asked my friend to fill my pint glass with Guinness and he mistakently emptied a bottle of Jameson in it).

  13. January First-of-May says

    I’m not sure if it makes their comparison in the table any more or less convincing, but I did not notice it

    Two of the four characters they’re doing comparisons to are rotationally symmetrical; the third is Ugaritic and so simple it could be compared to anything. The last one works better the way they drew it.

    OTOH I’m unconvinced that there was any rotation involved at all, as opposed to two RTL lines on top of each other for some reason (or even two LTR lines under each other). Really the only proof is the two qoph monkeys (8 and 16) looking in opposite direction, and maybe the yod at 1; most everything else is either rotationally symmetric, or so deformed that turning it around wouldn’t change the comparison much.

    “Clearly” is doing an underpants gnomes level of work there.

    Indeed I’m strongly unconvinced that letter 10 is a lamed, and weakly unconvinced that it’s even actually the 10th letter; there’s easily enough space for another letter in the missing corner (“slightly damaged during excavation”, says the paper, and presumably since 2016 the other piece had been lost).
    But AFAICT it appears that a lamed would make sense in the context [i.e. would probably have been reconstructed anyway even if the letter was illegible], and looking at the photos I can’t rule out that this was in fact a normal spiral lamed with its tail broken off.

    (Letter 7 looks more like a lamed, but is also, as far as I could tell, less guaranteed by context; and there’s no space for a broken-off tail either.)

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    Guinness is good for you

    Dorothy L Sayers’ most celebrated work.

  15. Pavel Jetušek says

    @Trond Engen says:

    ‘Camels, one would think. The semantic shift of qml “louse” -> “camel” probably happened with the prohibition against shaving.’

    There is no etymological connection between “louse” and “camel”.

    The latter is reconstructed as *gam(a)l-, while the former as *ḳaml- ~ *ḳalm-, if I’m not mistaken.

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    It seems to me conceivable that that naughty Mr Engen may not have been completely serious.
    (I would never undermine the solemnity of these august discussions by such frivolity myself, but then, I am not – how shall I put this tactfully? – Norwegian.)

  17. Stu Clayton says

    It was only a follow-up jest to mine on Arrival linguistics.

  18. ” but then, I am not – how shall I put this tactfully? – Norwegian.”

    DE, oh, that was the most unexpected ninjaed comment. I was going to say it, but then I… no, I didn’t decide to be tactful.

  19. Yes, I’m afraid we’re a bunch of unrepentant jesters around here. Abandon hope all ye!

  20. David Marjanović says

    But does anyone really believe that prompted only by *hearing* the word yod=hand/arm, disparate people would reliably produce something that even vaguely looked like the letters in Table 3, variable though they are, rather than any number of other ways of portraying an arm?

    I’ve only read one of Goldwasser’s papers; which one is this odd detail in?

  21. but then, I am not – how shall I put this tactfully? – Norwegian.

    No, but you are British in at least three senses:

    1) you are English;

    2) you are Scottish, and therefore British (“Do it for England!” “Why would I want to do thaʔ?” “He means, for Britain.” “Oh.”)

    3) you are one of those who have a claim, as Tolkien put it, to be the chief inheritors of the title British.

  22. Perhaps I shouldn’t have guffawed and stopped reading at “orally” because her theory proves ever so slightly more sophisticated.
    https://www.torahinmyheart.com/v/vspfiles/downloadables/00_Origins_of_the_Aleph-Bet.pdf

    Still with gems like this in the build-up you can see why it was enticing to take her at her word.:

    >The alphabet‘s first documented use boils down to the most basic and touching form of communication— ̳I was here.‘‖11

    Anyone else think Semitic miners invented the alphabet for no other purpose than to etch their names on cliff faces?

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    The Sumerians seem to have invented writing for accountancy purposes. I prefer the Semitic miners … and who among has has not wished to etch their name on a cliff face?

    If you’re posh enough, of course, you can get minions to do it for you instead of doing it yourself:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Behistun_Inscription

  24. David Marjanović says

    Anyone else think Semitic miners invented the alphabet for no other purpose than to etch their names on cliff faces?

    Thanks for the link. In the paper I read previously, Goldwasser talked about the miners’ “urge to contact the gods” (far away from home, in captivity or other labor-camp conditions, in a desert…), and they saw how the Egyptians contacted the gods: by writing on the outsides of their temples and elsewhere. I find it entirely imaginable that someone took the hieroglyphs, assigned them Semitic sound values on the rebus principle, and figured the gods would figure it out…

    Aztec near-writing was primarily used to record names. The Indus perhaps-not-quite-script seems to have had a similar purpose.

  25. Stu Clayton says

    The alphabet‘s first documented use boils down to the most basic and touching form of communication— ̳I was here.‘‖11

    It may be basic, but why “touching” ? Is it being interpreted as an all-too-human attempt to live beyond the moment ?

    Nowadays tourists take pictures of themselves for the same purpose. It’s easier than climbing and scratching. Photos last a little longer than progeny, but not so long as granite.

    I don’t understand this desire to outlive oneself, whether on the cliffs or in the sky. At some point, enough is enough already.

    Goldwasser talked about the miners’ “urge to contact the gods” (far away from home, in captivity or other labor-camp conditions, in a desert…), and they saw how the Egyptians contacted the gods: by writing on the outsides of their temples and elsewhere.

    We needn’t go as far as Egypt. Anyone who has had a dog knows how it contacts other dogs – by peeing on trees and elsewhere. Feuerbach wrote on this at length in Das Wesen des Kötertums.

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    O Stu, live for ever!

  27. Stu Clayton says

    Yeah, Borges had a story about that. But thanx anyway.

  28. January First-of-May says

    and who among has has not wished to etch their name on a cliff face?

    “Самая же большая и древняя надпись, выполненная клинописью, находилась выше всех. По аналогии с другими надписями я решил, что там написано (в переводе) примерно следующее:

    «Я, ВЕЛИКИЙ ЦАРЬ ДАРИЙ I, ЦАРЬ ЦАРЕЙ,
    БЫЛ ЗДЕСЬ В 5 ВЕКЕ ДО Н.Э.
    КТО СОТРЁТ ЭТУ НАДПИСЬ, БУДЕТ ДУРАК.»

    Самая новая надпись находилась не на стене, а рядом. Большие чёрные буквы информировали всех, знающих фарси или английский, что дальнейшее оставление надписей на историческом памятнике категорически запрещается.”

    [The largest and most ancient inscription, written in cuneiform, was located the highest of all. By analogy with other inscriptions I decided that it said (in translation) approximately the following:

    “I, GREAT KING DARIUS I, KING OF KINGS,
    WAS HERE IN 5TH CENTURY B.C.E.
    WHO ERASES THIS INSCRIPTION, WILL BE A FOOL.”

    The newest inscription was not located on the wall, but next to it. Large black letters informed everyone who knew Farsi or English that any further inscribing on the historical monument was absolutely forbidden.]

    – Anton Krotov, Через семь границ [Across seven borders], discussing a monument in Persepolis

    (As it happens, the last line of the “translation” has actual parallels in the Behistun text, though that version is rather more elaborate on the resulting fate of the would-be eraser.)

  29. David Eddyshaw says

    Talking of alphabets, I had not actually appreciated before that the Old Persian cuneiform script is (more or less) an alphabet, rather than a syllabary; or that it has very little in common with any other cuneiform script.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Persian_cuneiform

    I had imagined that it was a sort of very simplified version of Akkadian cuneiform, but it seems that it was actually really a new invention.

    I knew that it was the first cuneiform script to be deciphered, and that this was, as it were, the entry point for subsequently deciphering proper cuneiform, as in Akkadian; but it evidently can’t have actually been very helpful, at least not directly. Rather, it was inscriptions with parallel Persian and Akkadian texts that were the key, not actually extrapolating from the Persian script itself to Akkadian script. I Did Not Know That.

  30. David Marjanović says

    Yeah, Borges had a story about that. But thanx anyway.

    Would you prefer to become ten thousand years old, ten thousand years old, ten thousand [times] ten thousand years old, like the emperors, the empress dowager and the People’s Republic of China?

  31. Can’t we add to Darius’s inscription something like “teach two people to read and write and make them repeat this inscription with your name instead of ‘Darius'”?

  32. Man, I can’t remember the last time I saw a chain letter.

  33. I, …WAS HERE IN 5TH CENTURY B.C.E.

    Right. This fish was put into the pond 5 years before Napoleonean conquest of Moscow.

  34. > I find it entirely imaginable that someone took the hieroglyphs, assigned them Semitic sound values on the rebus principle, and figured the gods would figure it out…

    Sure. But A) Goldwasser explicitly says they were devised then and there by illiterates who didn’t know the values of the hieroglyphics. The problem with that is that the signs are already more abstract than people who’ve spent a PhD staring at them seem to remember. She offers a cute little chart of proto Sinaitic letters that do indeed look like drawings. Now look at some Serabit el Khadim inscriptions

    https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Three-Sinaitic-inscriptions-n-345-374-and-353-from-Serabit-el-Khadim-G-G-ARBINI_fig2_263528954

    She claims these are first generation. She thinks she knows by name the circle of people who invented them. Yet these already seem derived to me. For Goldwasser, the “iconic meanings… what they actually pictured” are paramount. If you and a friend independently tried to put words to each, on how many would your answers even agree?

    B) She says they largely limited themselves to narrow usages, despite watching the Egyptians employ two different scripts in a wide range of contexts.

    And C) She believes that “for a half millennium after its invention, this alphabet was rarely used—at least as far as it is reflected in the archaeological record.”

    She really seems to believe that absence of evidence 4,000 years later is evidence of absence.

    We know the Punic cities had agricultural treatises, geographical texts, merchants who kept records, people who wrote letters, building dedications highlighting people of wealth and power.

    Yet the vast majority of our examples are 2-4 word dedications to Tanit in cemeteries. If no one was documenting such things today, and instead, it took another 1600 years, it’s plausible that the remains would have been reduced to 30 such dedications in Carthage and two in Utica. And surely there would be an Orly Goldwasser to say that Punic people invented their script for the sole purpose of dedicating funerary stelas to Tanit, and then rarely used the script for centuries.

  35. For the curious, the three passages (mentioned in the article) in the Mishnah and the Sifra where the word חט ḥṭ occurs are here, here, and here (the translations displayed offer ‘incisors’).

  36. Today we have evidence of three or four consonants whose graphemes were abandoned in the process that led to the reduction of the number of consonants to 22 in the language of the people from whom the Israelites, Arameans, and others borrowed the alphabet. These graphemes represented the phonemes ḏ (no. 6 in our inscription) that shifted to z or d; ḫ that shifted to ḥ; ṯ that shifted to š; and possibly ǵ that shifted to ʿ.

    In our opinion, the word that gave rise to the letter acrophonically is (PS *ḥẓ >) ḥṣ, the common West Semitic word for “arrow”, as it represents in a very schematic way a bow and arrow.

    The Mishnaic word חט ḥṭ is sometimes taken to be related to Jewish Babylonian Aramaic root ḥṭṭ ‘to dig out’, Post-Biblical Hebrew חָטַט ḥāṭaṭ ‘dig out, rake out’, Arabic خط ḫaṭṭa ‘draw a line (as on the ground), write, engrave, inscribe’, etc., as for example by Jastrow. The semantics aren’t bad—compare German Hauer ‘boar’s tusk’ from hauen, and indeed post-medieval medical Latin dens incisivus (English incisor) from incīdere ‘cut, carve, engrave’. The Proto-Semitic root is *ḫṭṭ ‘dig’ (list of cognates here). This root has original *ḫ ([x] ~ [χ]), not *ḥ ([ħ]).

    It is therefore interesting that—according to the analysis of the authors of the paper—the inscription uses a letter of the Proto-Canaanite script akin to Old South Arabian 𐩢 , Ge’ez ሐ, which is [ħ], in order to write the first consonant in the word corresponding to Mishnaic חט ḥṭ. Since the PS root of the Mishnaic word is supposedly *ḫṭṭ with *ḫ, I would have expected the use of another letter, perhaps the one looking like a twist of thread (cf. Arabic خيط ḫayṭ ‘thread, string’ with [χ]; Hebrew חוּט ḥûṭ) and corresponding to OSA 𐩭 , Ge’ez ኀ, which is ([x] ~ [χ]). (Neither of these letters for back fricatives survived into the Phoenician alphabet, since the Phoenician alphabet uses another letter for , one having an origin separate from that of ሐ.) In particular, I would have expected the letter used in the inscription to represent [ħ] rather than [x] ~ [χ], because (according to the paper) the Proto-Canaanite source of ሐ was apparently a picture of an arrow in a bow, Proto-Semitic *ḥVṯ̣ṯ̣- ‘arrow’, which begins with *ḥ [ħ] (see cognates here), not *ḫ ([x] ~ [χ]).

    If the root etymology from PS *ḫṭṭ for the Mishnaic word is correct, then it seems that there are two possibilities:

    (1) The person who inscribed the comb had either learned a version of the script in which the distinction between /x/ and /ħ/ was no longer made, and so they used the ሐ-like glyph ([ħ] in Ge’ez) to render their /x/ for the the first consonant in the word for “tusk” in the inscription. This speaker would essentially have been in the same position as speakers of Hebrew, using the Paleo-Hebrew letter 𐤇 and then the Aramaic letter ח for both /x/ and /ħ/ until the final merger of these Hebrew sounds beginning in the late 1st millennium BCE.

    (2) A Phoenician-like merger of PS *ḫ and *ḥ had already occurred in that person’s variety of speech (wherever the comb was inscribed before its deposition in Lachish).

    Or the root etymology from PS *ḫṭṭ for the Mishnaic word could just be wrong. I would be interested to learn of other etymological proposals.

  37. Somewhat inconsistently

    חִטָּיו הַחִיצוֹנוֹת שֶׁנִּפְגְּמוּ אוֹ שֶׁנִּגְמְמוּ, וְהַפְנִימִיּוֹת שֶׁנֶּעֱקָרוּ
    If the outer incisors are defective or leveled [to the gum] or the molars are torn out [completely]
    וְחִטָּיו הַפְּנִימִיּוֹת שֶׁנִּפְגְּמוּ
    Or molars which have been broken but not torn out [completely];
    חיטיו: החצונות שנפגמו ושנגממו ופנימיות שנעקרו
    if its outer incisors were broken off or leveled (with the gum), or its inner ones rooted out.

  38. I am not sure what is inner and outer here (“inner incisors” are “molars”?) but on the comb “tooth” makes more sense than “tusk”.

  39. Well, combs have teeth, but this comb is made from an elephant’s tusk. Or maybe you’re making a point about the Hebrew that I’m not getting?

  40. There’s a lot going on in my mind about this. The interpretation that there is one sentence is an interesting conclusion to jump to:

    “Yod Tav Shin Kaf Het Tet Di Lamed Qof Mem Dzsa ‘ayn ? ? zayin”

    However, if someone is savvy enough to inscribe that small, in a space 3cm wide by 2cm tall, my thought is that they would also be able to ascribe a direction to the intent of the reader, should someone be able to read it:
    Wouldn’t it be fun if this discovery included 2 sentences, and there was a sort of shorthand that went with it, and also included a pun or double entendre or two?
    Qof kind of looks like a louse.

    Instructions For the small teeth:
    “Yod Tav Shin Kaf Het Tet Di Lamed Qof

    Instructions For the Big Teeth:
    (Lamed) Mem Dzsa ‘ayn (*) KAF zayin QOF (or HET) TAV

  41. @Ryan, sorry, I thought about expanding on it, but was not sure if my idea deserves it: I just mean I prefer the translation “tooth”.

    (1) see here:

    …as the fiſhe tooth(which they cal Ribazuba which is vſed both among thẽſelues& the Perʃians& Boughariãs that fetcht it from thence for beads,kniues,& ſword hafts of Noblemen,&gentlemẽ,& for diuers other vſes. ….
    (about Russians. No one knows “ribazuba” now:/)

    … Ivory is in Indian as in European commerce spoken of as the “elephant tooth”, but a second substance is called the “fish tooth ” (machlí-ka-dant). This is always of a dirty (oily) yellow colour with the texture looking as if crystallized into patches…..

    The authors too mention “elephant tooth” – but what matters here, is of course not Oriental languages (like Russian :-)) but langauges of the region : Hebrew, Akkadian etc. I haven’t checked how they called ivory yet. Another way to refer to ivory in European languages is G. Elfenbein R. слоновая кость “elephant bone”.

    (2) “tooth” makes more sense as a weapon against lice.
    I don’t mean the actual practice of killing lice with teeth when grooming (I think apes do that?), I mean
    – teeth are familiar and symbolise threat (cf. Mowgli’s knife, iron tooth). A tusk is abstract to me. Maybe less so for people of the ME… I think elephants still lived there back then.
    – tusks are too big:) Attacking lice with a Tusk is a ratehr comical picture

    (3) if their only reference is Hebrew “some kinds of [ovine] teeth”, general “tooth” closer to this than specialised “tusk”.

    (4) but I of course see that the modern name for the object thought to be referred to in this context is “tusk”.

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