Often, the past feels like a foreign country. But occasionally the landscape of the ancient world is illuminated in a way that makes it all too recognisable. I experienced a rush of fellow feeling with generations long gone last week after Israeli archaeologists revealed the oldest known sentence written in humanity’s first alphabet. Which words did the bronze age Canaanite scribe choose to scratch on an ivory comb in approximately 1700BC? “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard.”
As Prof Yosef Garfinkel, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, noted: “The inscription is very human.” The sentiment, and the design of the fine-toothed comb it was inscribed on, could not have been more relevant to my life; ever since schools reopened, I have been engaged, like many parents, in a seemingly never-ending battle against head lice. I’ve unleashed all the chemical weapons, making my way through every lotion on the chemist’s shelves. But eradication doesn’t work when nits are circulating in your child’s class. All you can hope to do is keep them at bay with a good old nit comb. Our stainless steel version, with those same distinctive narrow teeth as the Canaanite model, is stationed permanently on the edge of our bath.
Every week I subject my kids to the torture of combing, to screeches and squeals of disapproval. No doubt, Canaanite children squealed in just the same way.
Perhaps I’m itchily obsessed, because this is not the only historically significant nit comb I’ve seen in recent weeks. On a half-term visit to the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth’s historic dockyard, amid the world’s largest collection of Tudor artefacts, my sons and I admired the collection of 82 wooden nit combs dredged from the Solent in 1982 after four centuries embedded in the sea mud. Apparently, some had 16th-century lice still trapped in their teeth. With 500 people crammed into such confined living quarters, it’s little wonder that nits had a heyday on board. (One imagines, looking at some of the brutal surgical procedures they had to endure, that the sailors on the Mary Rose would have been more stoical about combing.)
In other ages and cultures, much care and attention has been lavished on nit comb design: the V&A museum has a 12th-century comb decorated with seven scenes from the Bible; an ornate 15th-century French comb was inscribed with the words “for your comfort”. A Venetian comb is engraved with a tableau showing the typical pastimes of wealthy nobles, including dancing in a garden, playing a portable organ and hunting deer.
We tend to be more functional these days. But in a world of dizzyingly rapid technological change, there is something strangely comforting about a mundane problem that has never gone away. For all the marketing hype about “electric nit combs” – a ruse for winkling 20 quid out of desperate parents if ever I heard one – we’ve made little progress since the Canaanites.
In fact, in this individualist era, we’ve made things worse. Nits is one of those problems for which there is no individual solution – eradication has to be a collective effort. The 1980s primary-schoolers out there will remember the “nit nurse”, a terrifying figure who examined our heads in front of the class. They may have traumatised a generation, but they did stop nits from spreading. The closest we’ve come was during lockdown, when there was speculation among my parent friends that the pandemic might knock lice on the head for good. We had many problems during the Covid school closures, but nits weren’t one. A US study found that the prevalence of lice “decreased significantly” from 69.6% of children before, to 43.9% during lockdown. As the scary nurse told us all those years ago, nits can’t jump – and certainly not over the 2 metres that social distancing measures would have required. How naive we were.
After millennia of driving humans to distraction, head lice were never going to give up easily. It was inevitable they would come crawling back, ticklish and persistent as ever. Humanity may have landed a man on the moon and be on the brink of creating sentient computers but we have never come close to conquering the humble nit.
• Alice O’Keeffe is a literary critic and journalist and author of On the Up