A variety of photographs and drawings are available at those sites, with extensive commentary. According to the Times of Israel, Daniel Vainstub (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev) is responsible for the published reading of this remarkable inscription (in the JJAR article), and this is my response to it; in my considered opinion (based on my experience of writing systems over 80 years of my life) his interpretation of the text is basically correct, but with quite a few errors (mostly relating to identification of letters and their sounds).
My table of signs for the early alphabet is available here:
Be it known, the title of the official article is: "A Canaanite's wish to eradicate lice on an inscribed ivory comb from Lachish". The writers could have saved themselves from embarrassing ambiguity and inaccuracy by reducing it to the last six words. Apparently his wish was granted: after a diligent scientific search, no lice were found on the comb; well, hardly any; lice remains were found on one tooth. However, here is their clear statement: "The inscription expresses the wish that the comb on which it is engraved will eradicate the lice from the hair and beard of the owner of the comb" (109). Their actual translation is: "May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard". Quite so, but rather than a wish, this could be a strong affirmation from the maker of this device: it will remove the pests from the user's scalp and chin, that is, advertising, something like this: "It expels every louse from hair and beard". That is my understanding of the inscription, at this point in my "work in progress" (20/11/22), but it could change if I notice any more letters in the text. By the way, the mention of "beard" allows us to assume that the possessor was not a woman, but not necessarily so.
My working hypothesis will be (25/11/22): The caption does not express a wish made by the user of the comb for relief from parasites; it is not an aspiration but an affirmation made by the comb itself that it is kosher, fit for purpose, having the proficiency to exterminate every louse in the user's hair and beard.
Here we have yet another West Semitic inscription to add to our growing collection, and once again we express our thanks to Yosef Garfinkel for discovering it at Lakish (alias Lachish). For the other documents, go here:
Be not deceived: this is a tiny artefact, 3.5 cm x 2.5 cm, with "fine teeth" on one side, for catching lice and their nits (eggs and larvae), and six big teeth on the opposite side, for knots and tangles (Fig. 15, 91). Also, the writing is minuscule (its characters are 1 to 3 mm in width), so much so that it was overlooked for several years; we are studying magnified pictures, and we have to marvel at the skill of the engraver; but we can imagine the stylus slipping and leaving unintended marks in amongst the intended characters of the text; and some significant strokes might be faint, and overlooked by scholars.
As regards the age of the inscription, a very tentative date around 1700 BCE has been proposed, in the Bronze Age, when the alphabet (or the proto-alphabet, in my terminology) was young; but the comb was found in a position belonging to the Iron Age (about 1000 BCE). This could mean that the inscriber was well acquainted with the West Semitic scripts, and chose archaic forms for the letters; in this case he would have been a citizen of Israel, and this comb would belong in the field of Biblical Archaeology; but the object may have already been old when it came to rest in its find-spot, judging by its state of disrepair.
The editors have decided that the writing starts from the bottom right corner and runs leftwards above the fine teeth of the comb; they think that the text continues from the upper right, but the engraver turned the object around 180 degrees, so that the writing on this line is inverted in relation to the first line. This seems plausible, though possibly the right side was the top, and we are then looking at two vertical columns extending downwards; or else the fine teeth are at the top, and the text starts from the top left corner, running from left to right. In this last scenario, the third letter would become /\/\ (M) not \/\/ (Sh), and this possibility will need to be considered.
This is their proposed reading of the letters:
YTSh H.T. D LQM|L S``[R W]ZQT
"May this tusk (H.T. D) root out (YTSh) the lice (L-QML) of the hair (S``R) and (W) the beard (ZQT)."
For my initial response, I am grateful to them for doing the ground work, and finding the words for louse (QML), hair (S``R), and beard (ZQT, actually ZQN, in my view), but this (D/Dh) and tusk (H.T.) are not valid, and YTSh (root out) might be YTM (destroy), or something else.
At the outset, I am compelled to blurt out some harsh criticism: yet again an early West Semitic inscription has been entrusted to scholars who can read Israelian and Phoenician texts from the Iron Age, but have no competence for interpreting proto-alphabetic Canaanian documents from the Bronze Age, since they use the discredited Albright paradigm when assigning sound-values to the letters they encounter. I offered a new paradigm in 1988 and 1990 and refined it in 2014. My essay on The Origin of the Alphabet (2014) is actually listed in the vast bibliography of this article, but no attention has been paid to its contents in the attempt at deciphering this "lousy" inscription.
Daniel Vainstub has my gratitude for replacing the term "Canaanite" (woefully mispronounced by the phonetically crippled English) with "Canaanean", so that "Kana`an" is heard, not the abomination of desolation "Kaynen". Unfortunately the Kaynenites are back in full force here .
Let's do it my way. The first principle of epigraphy is acknowledgement that the only person who really knew the intended meaning of an inscription is the person who composed it, and this will usually be the person who inscribed it. I will now argue that the editors of this text have not fully understood all the ramifications of the text they are attempting to elucidate.
The first atrocity they have committed is the chronic failure to ask the essential question: Is this text syllabic or consonantal? This fault has caused the downfall of many published interpretations of West Semitic inscriptions, reducing them to nonsense, though the perpetrators (and their hapless readers) are blithely unaware of their mistakes.
In my grand unifying theory there are four closely related types of early West Semitic script, but not many scholars recognize this elementary fact; and the members of this "quadrinity" constitute an evolutionary system:
Protosyllabary > Protoconsonantary > Neoconsonantary > Neosyllabary.
These were all in operation till the Iron Age, when "the Phoenician alphabet" became the standard form of consonantal script in the Levant. These unassailable truths are presented here:
Apparently Lakish was uninhabited at the time when the Neosyllabary was flourishing (the period of the Judges in Israel) so this is not likely to be a neosyllabic inscription, and also the editors feel that it dates from the Bronze Age. To my mind (with tables of signs at my disposal for both syllabaries), there are no clear indications that this is protosyllabic or neosyllabic, and so it is proto-alphabetic, that is, either protoconsonantal (with about 27 consonants) or neoconsonantal (with less than two dozen consonants represented).
For the editors of this inscription it is simply "written in the Canaanite script" (90). However, they show some inkling of distinguishing a long alphabet (protoconsonantary) and a short alphabet (neoconsonantary), when they state that the engraver has made "a clear distinction between d and z" (107). This is certainly a key indicator of the protoconsonantary (as in Sinai 375a, for example, and Thebes 4) but I think the sign for d (=) may be lacking here.
One other thing must not be overlooked: I have access to a much wider range of examples of inscriptions than they have, including four lists of the consononantograms of the proto-alphabet, from Thebes and Puerto Rico (sic!).
Time now to examine the letters, beginning at the presumed beginning in the lower right hand corner, with the Vainstub numbering.
(1) Y a Yod, hand (side view), with forearm and usually also with elbow, which is vaguely possible here; an additional mark is thought to be a thumb; but to my eyes the character looks like an ox-head (with horns and an eye? NYT photograph), and therefore 'Alep.
(2) T X-shaped Taw, apparently, but it has extra marks, and K is also possible. I am not able to supply an exact match for this form of K, but the X-sign stands for KU in the Protosyllabary, and the syllabogram KI (a palm-branch, kipp) is the same as the K (with an oblique stem) in the Phoenician alphabet, and also KI in the Neosyllabary; I have to say that this X-type K is an idiosyncratic form employed by this scribe (perhaps borrowed, as were most of the letters of the Protoalphabet, from the Protosyllabary, which was known in his city), and apparently there are four instances of K: 2, 17, 14 (indistinct), and 6, which may have a different form.
(3) Sh \/\/ or a less likely /\/\ Mem. Note that according to my (tried and true) paradigm the \/\/ character was SHA in the Protosyllabary, acrophonically derived from shad "breast", but in the Protoconsonantary, which recognizes more consonants, it is Th from thad "breast", and it becomes Shin in the short alphabet, the Neoconsonantary, and SHI in the Neo-syllabary; the sun symbol \o/ with two serpents (Sinai, Thebes), or one serpent o_o (Wadi el-Hol), or simply the sun-disc o (Byblos. Gebel Tingar) represents protosyllabic SHI from shimsh "sun", and protoconsonantal Sh; the sun-sign was replaced by the breast-sign in the Neoconsonantry, covering Shin and Sin and Th. Now, if this inscription is using the long alphabet (as the editors intimate, with regard to D and Z co-exisiting in this inscription) then it must be classified as protoconsonantal, and \/\/ will be Th not Sh. The editors do not comprehend these fundamental distinctions, because of their adherence to the Albright paradigm as disseminated by Gordon Hamilton, with the sun-sign Sh misunderstood as a bow and as denoting Th from *thann, and necessarily and erroneously endorsed as the predecessor of Shin and Sigma, because the breast-sign has been overlooked (Hamilton, 231-244); and their chosen Sh has only one attestation [!] as a thorn, *shawt (Hamilton, 123-126). Arabia has the sun as Th and the breast as Sh, and this is a reversal of their roles; this nevertheless verifies my choices (assisted by the cuneiform consonantary of Ugarit, and the Thebes tablets published by Flinders Petrie), but gives no support to the Albright scheme.
( ) G ? R? an angle below the \/\/, but it seems to be a rough square with a horizontal stem, perhaps representing a head, R.
(4) H rather than their H.et; they make an unsteady case for finding a counterpart for this letter in the various forms of H. in the Arabian scripts, which are reminiscent of a bow and arrow, and they conjecture an acrophonic connection with h.z./h.s. "arrow"; Arabia is usually helpful in this respect, as we have just seen (with Sh and Th), and it will certainly aid us in recognizing Qop further along the line; but this sign actually has a counterpart in the Sinai turquoise mines. The editors are heavily reliant on Gordon Hamilton's manual of alphabet origins, which has a dozen or more errors of identification; Hamilton has depicted an equivalent letter on Sinai 358, but he and Vainstub do not realize that it is an inverted form of the rejoicing person (matching hieroglyph A29), perhaps somersaulting rather than dancing, and acrophonically denoting H (from hll "exult"). Notice the tick (/|) at the leg end of the figure in each case; it is absent from their drawings of the letter (Fig. 15, 18, Table 4). This is H, and it would be worthwhile to consider the rest of this Sinai 358, as it shares a number of letters with the comb text; it is an obituary for a literate metal-worker, not one of Orly Goldwasser's illiterate miners, who are incredibly credited with inventing the alphabet at the turquoise mines.
"Asa ('s: ox 'alp, fish samk) has done (p`l: mouth pu, eye `ayn, crook l) his work (mlkth: water maym, crook l, hand k, taw t, H)"
If we also consider Sinai 376, in which Asa the smith records the sickness that will cause his death, we can find examples of W, Q, S., and R to compare with possible counterparts on the comb.
( ) M to the right of the top of the H there is an oblique stroke which seems to be joined to a sequence of waves; on the other side of the H there are two vertical wavy lines, the second possibly possibly ending with + Taw. None of this is recorded in the drawing
(5) W a large circle on an oblique stem, difficult to discern, possibly an illusion; letters that fit this prescription (none of them recognized in the Albright paradigm) are:
Z. (z.l/s.l, shade, parasol, known from lists but not yet seen in a text);
Q (--o-) see letter 8;
R head with neck, P-shaped;
T. (T.et, o-+, originally the Egyptian nfr hieroglyph, Semitic t.ab, good, attested in Sinai 351 and lists, and as T.A in the Protosyllabary); Vainstub tries to make this a distorted attempt to write the other form of T.et, where the cross is inside the circle; but if this is Tet the cross would be exterior, and there is indeed a black line crossing the stem on Fig. 17, and that photograph seems to show a smaller circle than depicted on the drawing (Fig. 18); a nfr T.et is thus faintly possible, but W (waw nail) might be a suitable companion for the preceding H, making the pronoun hw (huwa, he or it), but this view would exclude the three Mems.
(6) K a hand (kap) with fingers, or else a palm branch (kipp), but this is a letter K, a cross (X) with extra marks (all is revealed on Fig. 17); there is no reason for detaching two of the strokes to make Dh (=), as Vainstub does (95);
(7) L a clear arc, but difficult to discern whether it has a curl at the top or the bottom; Vainstub chooses the top as likely (see Fig. 17); it is perhaps too rounded to be a crook; it is more like a coil, but the editors deny this.
(8) Q identified as a monkey (qop) by the editors, based on the erroneous view (promoted by Hamilton, 209-221) that the sign for Q is the Sadey character of the proto-alphabet, which is actually a tied bag (s.rr) (o<, compare Arabian S., and Phoenicia S.adey, which has one side of the bag removed, as P has one lip of the mouth missing), but the sack is remoulded by Hamilton and now Vainstub and his team, to represent an ape; they even add a tail to this one; the true Q/q is a cord (Hebrew qaw) wound on a stick (--o- or --o< with the end of the string shown); the Arabian scripts attest --o- unanimously! It stands unobserved in Sinai 345, 363, 376, all Asa inscriptions. The main photograph (Fig. 14) seems to allow a long stem extending right down to the teeth; this is certainly so with letter 16, also apparently Q.
(9) M and L not N (snake) but it is depicted thus ( \/\ ) on the drawing (Fig. 18) and subjected to special pleading, dubiously characterizing it as "a reduced mem" (97) with only one wave remaining of the water sign (/\/\/\/\); but if we gather together some of the other lines floating around below it we can see an untidy M, and it becomes the L needed to create the word QML, "louse"; but more thought needs to be given to what is really here.
( ) Here at the top right corner there is a missing piece of the ivory, on which a letter may have been engraved.
(10) L a C-shaped character, apparently, but I think it has a stem and a loop, like 7 and 9 (according to my interpretation of them).
( ) M a vertical wavy line, which could be a water-sign, Mem, or a meaningless scratch.
(11) S "This letter shows no resemblance to any letter known so far in the corpus of Canaanite inscriptions", and this incorrect assertion is followed by four pages of speculation to make the unidentifeid sign represent a sibilant (98-101); they search for "an animal with a slightly triangular head", and they propose (among other animal and vegetable improbabilities) a snake (srp, with Sin as its sibilant); of course, the serpent (adder and cobra) is in the proto-syllabary and the proto-alphabet as NA and N, and I will identify one in the top line, far left; the simple solution to the present problem is that this is the head of a fish, and its body (with scales? and a dorsal fin? and a tail?) is detectable. Experts on the Phoenician and Hebraic alphabets can not see the fish on the Izbet Sartah ostracon, in the 'abagadary, roughly in the position of Samek, but obviously Samek, which would be acrophonically derived from samk "fish", not dag "fish", representing D (a fishy tale spread by Hamilton, 66 -75); the fish in the fourth line of the Qeiyafa ostracon is likewise left unnetted; incidentally, the script on these two ostraca is the Neo-syllabary. Our friend Asa the Smith of Sinai has the fish-sign for his Samek.
(12) `(ayn) an eye, with two confusing dots, as on the fish head; situated above H (4).
(13) R (a human head) is expected here, to provide the word S`R "hair"; this "location" is described as "completely damaged"; the main photograph (Fig. 14) seems to depict a head with hairs standing on end, showing nits; another possible head is a ghostly image above this spot.
(14) [K?] I suspect another X-shaped letter is lurking in this damaged area (where fingers manipulating the comb pressed heavily?); they suggest W.
( ) [W?] I detect a vertical --o on Fig. 17 and also Fig. 14.
( ) [L?] a horizontal stroke with a round end, touching the stem of the Waw.
(15) Z a clear "bow-tie", or plausibly a double ax-head to Hamilton; I have proposed manacles (ziqq); Hamilton and Vainstub only know of two other instances: Sinai 375a (but they do not realize that it says mpkt zkt "pure turquoise"), and the Izbet Sartah ostracon (where it represents neosyllabic ZA), but other examples are recorded here.
(16) Q the two projections (end of stick and end of cord) do not meet to form a semicircle (Fig. 17), and rightly so; the same applies on letter 8; one stroke is the top of the stick, the other is the end of the cord wound on the stick .
( ) N needed for the word ZQN "beard", and a cobra (curved tail on the right, neck on the left, possibly with a head?) is visible on Fig. 17 and the best view is on the NYT photograph; the snake is similar to this one from Egypt:
(17) K another X-shaped sign, with an additional line at the bottom; this reminds me of the K in Sinai 351, unmistakably K, as the initial consonant in the recurring word KBShN "furnace", but interpreted as Taw by Albright.
The title of the editio princeps article runs: "A Canaanite's wish to eradicate lice on an inscribed ivory comb from Lachish". The implications of this would be: the language of the inscription is West Semitic, and the text contains words for eradicate, lice, ivory, and comb. The editors add an apt quotation from the Babylonian Talmud (Niddah 20b):
WShDR LH SRYQWT' DMQT.L' KLMY
"He sent to her a comb that kills lice"
This is Aramaic, a West Semitic language closely related to the "Canaanic" and "Hebraic" tongues. The final word in the sentence, KLMY, "lice" turns up on the comb as QML (with the original Q, and before metathesis changed ML to LM), but I regard it as singular "louse", as is QML, "a louse", on the ancient Aramaic Sefire inscription (105-106, a summary of the various Semitic forms of the term); but it might be used as a collective noun here. The "ivory" is discovered as H.T., a rare word for an animal tooth, translated here as "tusk"; but that reading is quite wrong, and the accompanying Dh for "this" is an unfortunate fabrication. The word corresponding to "kill" is construed as YTSh, from the root NTSh, meaning "expel", or "root out" in their translation, equivalent to "eradicate" in the title of their article; but the Yod is actually 'Alep, and the Taw is K. There is no word for comb in their reading, but it covered by their non-existent "tusk", a tooth term; in my interpretation the text is a statement made by the comb itself.
Here is my analysis of the inscription, which apparently runs thus:
' K Sh R H M T K L Q M L
L S ` R K W L Z Q
Literally (agonizingly so!):
"I will cause to succeed the putting to death of every louse
from your hair and from your beard"
'KShR: I am taking the V-shaped consonant as 'alep, the X-shaped letter as K, the W-shaped sign as Sh or Th, and the neglected fourth letter as R, a vertical stylized human head with a short neck. This would produce a verb, first person singular imperfect, from the root KShR (as in kosher!). This root was originally KThR, and if this text is using the Protoconsonantary we would have to read the word as 'KThR. The root is known in the name KThR-W-KhSS ("skillful and intelligent"), the god of arts and crafts in Ugaritic myths; and it is found as Akkadian kasharu "succeed". It is not much attested in Biblical Hebrew, but its semantic range covers "be right, fitting, successful" and "do successfully"; The Hip`il causative form is found in Ecclesiates/Qohelet 10:10, "cause to succeed": "wisdom gives success". I think that is what we have here: "I cause to succeed", or perhaps "I do successfully".
HMT: H for hillulu "exultation", M a vertical wavy line, T a small + cross. This would be the grammatical object of the preceding verb; it could be a verbal noun (infinitive) from the root MWT "die", again a Hip'il form, but with its initial H intact, "causing to die", or "putting to death"; the result is perhaps "I will successfully put to death", and lice will be the object of this combination. If there is indeed a Waw floating around in that space, it might produce HMWT, showing all the consonants of the root MWT; or as a T.et it might be a logogram for "good" or "well", "exterminate for good", as it were.
KL: definitely K, not Dh; clearly L, the Semitic word for "all" or "every".
QML: a word for louse, which takes many forms, as stated above and noted by the editors (105-106), hence "every louse". In the Bible, kén is possibly "louse", or some other pest that moves in swarms, such as "gnat" (Exodus 8:16-21).
LINE B - C
WORK IN PROGRESS.
The caption does not express a wish for relief from parasites by means of the comb; it is an affirmation made by the comb itself that it is kosher, fit for purpose, proficient to exterminate every louse in the user's hair and beard.