Dr. Mumcuoglu sent two of these pictures to Daniel Vainstub, a paleographer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. He was able to discern Canaanite letters. Dr. Hasel and Dr. Garfinkel then sent the actual comb to Dr. Vainstub for a more thorough analysis. All of the researchers were stunned that the writing had gone unnoticed for more than five years
“Everybody had this comb in their hand, and no one saw the inscription,” Dr. Mumcuoglu said.
Over the next few months, Dr. Vainstub compared the 17 letters in the inscription, each less than a tenth of an inch long, to other ancient writings. Because examples of Canaanite writing around the same time period are rare and fragmentary, and because many of the engravings on the comb were faint, the work was painstaking. But the writing of the inscription on a ivory comb seemed to point to a single translation. Dr. Vainstub said that, after he made out the word “lice,” he knew he had figured it out.
“This is brilliant and judicious and careful scholarship,” said Dr. Rollston, who was not involved in the study.
While the discovery and deciphering of the inscription amounts to a significant archaeological advance in the study of the alphabet, none of the researchers claim that this finding blows open the doors to the field. In fact, there are many new questions to ask: There were no elephants in Canaan, so where was the ivory comb inscribed? Who inscribed it? What purpose did the inscription serve?
Dr. Garfinkel said that finding the comb with a plea against lice was like “finding a plate that says, ‘Put food on this plate.’” It’s simple, functional and reflective, in some ways, of our nature.
“It’s something very human,” he said. “What were you expecting? A love song? A recipe to make pizza?”